Harvard Women's Health Watch

In the News: Avian flu: Anticipated and closely watched

In the News

Avian flu: Anticipated and closely watched

The potential for a pandemic has pushed avian flu to the top of official agendas. That's good.

Although we're in the middle of another flu season, the influenza on most people's minds is not the usual seasonal flu. For years, health experts have predicted the reemergence of a deadly influenza strain that could spread easily from person to person — in other words, a pandemic. The most likely candidate is the avian influenza A (H5N1) virus, which first appeared almost 10 years ago in wild birds in Asia. The virus has already devastated the East Asian poultry industry, and infected migratory birds have carried it to Romania, Russia, and Turkey. A relatively small number of people have been infected, half of whom have died. Most were individuals who lived and worked around poultry and came in contact with bird feces and respiratory fluids.

No one can predict when H5N1 will mutate into a form that can easily be transmitted from person to person, or how serious the consequences might be. But officials at the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned us to prepare for a pandemic. There were three pandemics of human influenza in the 20th century. By far the worst was the 1918 "Spanish flu," which gained virulence in the close quarters of World War I trenches, hospitals, and transports, and circled the globe, killing more than half a million people in the United States and many millions worldwide in a single year.

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