The possibility of a major resurgence of a mutant strain of “highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1” – more commonly known as bird flu – has prompted the United Nations to advise health authorities around the world to step up surveillance and readiness.
The new strain, which U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization chief vet Juan Lubroth said can apparently “sidestep the defenses of the existing vaccines,” has already infiltrated parts of Vietnam and China, but fears of its spread are particularly high in Cambodia, where eight people have already died from H5N1 this year alone.
Since its first appearance in 2003, the H5N1 virus has infected 565 individuals throughout the world, ultimately killing 331 of them, the World Health Organization reported.
In addition to the tragic deaths, the bird flu was responsible for an estimated $20 billion in economic damage before its supposed eradication in 2006 from the 63 countries it infected during its peak.
While the number of outbreaks in poultry and wild bird populations shrank from a high of 4,000 to 302 in mid-2008, they have progressively risen since, with almost 800 cases reported in 2010-2011, Lubroth revealed, and added:
“The general departure from the progressive decline in 2004-2008 could mean that there will be a flare-up of H5N1 this fall and winter, with people unexpectedly finding the virus in their backyard.”
Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Egypt, China and Bangladesh, where H5N1 is firmly established, face the biggest problems. However, Lubroth – acknowledging the recent shifts in bird migration patterns – warned that no country is safe.
“Preparedness and surveillance remain essential. This is no time for complacency. No one can let their guard down with H5N1.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website notes that humans rarely contract avian flu, but in those cases when they do the symptoms can range from conjunctivitis to respiratory disease to death.