The virus that will not go away

The paradox in the concern that a virus seems to perpetually threaten us in the announcement today, February 03, 2007, of the confirmation of the avian flu that killed 2,600 turkeys at a Suffolk farm in England as the H5N1 virus is evident, afterall viral diseases are not ‘curable,’ although even a bit of detergent could kill this virus. To compound the matter further, it is not bird migration season and the birds were not in the open. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the European Commission conducted virus tests at laboratories in Weybridge, Surrey that made the confirmation. DEFRA has revoked the national general license on bird gatherings and banned bird shows and pigeon racing.


DEFRA has also imposed a three-kilometer protection zone and established a 10km surveillance zone around Holton, about 17 miles south-west of Lowestoft. Plans are underway to slaughter the remaining turkeys on the farm, as are additional tests to determine if the virus is the Asian strain. No doubt, the H5N1 strain of the virus could be deadly, having since 2003 infected 270 people, and killed 164 worldwide, most of them in south East Asia. Experts are reminding us that the virus does not pass from person to person, and one has to have very close contact with infected birds to contract the flu it causes.   

That we need to get rid of this virus, which poses a threat of a global pandemic is urgent, and underscores the need for collaboration among health systems worldwide in addressing not just this but health issues in general. It also reopens the controversial issue of poultry vaccinations, with the cost of vaccinating a chicken and that of the chicken, about the same, about US$4-$6, and of those regarding preparedness for a potential rapid spread of the flu across the globe, including the availability or otherwise of the antiviral drug tamiflu. It also raises issues concerning the use or its lack of healthcare information and communication technologies (healthcare ICT), which are invaluable in addressing various aspects of the issues surrounding this virus, and other viruses.

For the public though, perhaps most important are practical issues such as whether it is safe to handle and prepare raw chicken, even if we knew we could safely eat cooked chicken, or whether we would, with the virus having infected cats, need to put down all cats, in particular if they ate infected birds. No doubt, we could minimize the risks by avoiding bird droppings, in parks and zoos, for examples, not picking up sick or dead birds, and following good standards of hygiene such as washing our hands thoroughly. However, we must not hesitate to ask our healthcare providers questions about bird flu, or seek information on it from credible sources elsewhere, to keep abreast of changes in knowledge regarding this virus that will not leave us alone.