But if the virus develops an ability to pass from one human to another, the United States would have far less protection as the world possibly faces one of the worst flu pandemics in history.
Among the U.S. health officials watching the progress of this extraordinarily active virus (known as H5N1) as it infects chickens in Asia and waterfowl in Russia, is Alfonso Torres, director of the Animal Health Diagnostic Center and associate dean for veterinary public policy at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
"The fear is that if the virus changes or recombines with a regular human flu, the virus may acquire the ability to be effectively transmitted from human to human, then it could become the big pandemic that everyone is very concerned about," he says. As a consultant, Torres has held high-level policy discussions on avian flu with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and NATO, among others.
For now, the United States, like the rest of the Western world, can only watch and prepare. Since January 2004, the known human cases of avian flu have all struck in Southeast Asia -- out of 120 patients requiring treatment, about half have died. All of these infections were contracted from chickens, with the exception of a few cases in Vietnam where the source is unclear.
A natural reservoir for the avian flu virus is migratory waterfowl, and infected birds have been found in Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia, raising concern in the U.S. as the disease moves west. Although waterfowl do not appear to be playing a big role in poultry and human transmissions right now, they are being closely monitored.
"When experts look at the maps of the areas affected by avian influenza in Asia and they look at the flying pathways of migrato
Contact: Blaine Friedlander Jr.
Cornell University News Service