Bird Flu: How much of a threat?

When the health authorities say there is no threat at all to humans because the H5N8 strain only affects birds, then say there is a minimal threat, then others say that it is unlikely to spread among humans, but could and then others, that it is quite possible that there will be human cases, it is time to take notice.

Remember the A H1N1 outbreak in 2009, called Swine Flu originally? The new variant of the same strain that killed between 50 and 100 million people (Spanish Flu) in 1918 was allowed to run riot, spread across the world, while no travel restrictions were imposed, nobody was quarantined and the World Health Organization stood back and informed us of the different phases the virus was going through until it reached a global pandemic stage. And then the Pharma giant Roche stepped in and sold enormous quantities of Tamiflu (Oseltamivir).

While it is unlikely that the new Influenza A H5N8 will cause any problems to humans if it remains as it is, the point that it could very well mutate and create a significant health problem is being missed by the health authorities, limited as they are to acting as voyeurs and actively or passively (who knows?) acting as incubators for the Pharma lobby.

Influenza A H5N8 is one of the family of Orthomyxoviruses, which causes respiratory infection in the host. The characteristics of the H glycoprotein (Hemagglutinin, which is spike-shaped, poking out from the surface of the virus) and the N enzyme (Neuraminidase, allowing the glycoproteins to exit the host cell and spread) in the H5 subtype makes this type of virus more prone to attaching and interacting with Avian cells, as there are no swine or human components to this genome. This is why the scientific community brushes it off as a strain of bird flu which will not attack humans or make the genetic jump to swine/humans or swine and later, humans.

However, things are not exactly as simple as this. This type of virus undergoes constant changes, mutations, as the virus tries to vary its form and way of interacting to become more effective, infecting as many hosts as possible and propagating itself as much as it can. This particular strain of A H5N8 is currently undergoing such a process and the scientific community agrees it is becoming more and more pathogenic (dangerous).

And while we are speaking of A H glycoprotein viruses, let us not forget the A H5N1 which infected over 600 humans from 2003 to 2013 and had a mortality rate of over 60 per cent. Just in 2013, 20 people were infected, over half of these in Cambodia, and 15 died. Let us also not forget the A H1N1 strain which appeared twice, the first time in 1918 in which it claimed the lives of more victims than were caused by the First World War (between 50 and 100 million) and then again in 2009, a new variant containing a triple re-assortment of bird, swine and human flu viruses combined with the Eurasian Pig flu virus.

And here is the rub. Non-contagious subtypes usually remain ineffective in species outside the usual host (because they would have to adapt their structure to enter human cells); however, they can become contagious if they mutate, changing their genome structure allowing them to enter the host cell of another species, and this is particularly easy if a host is infected with two viruses at the same time: a "normal" human flu virus or swine flu virus which has made the species jump, and an avian flu virus such as A H5N8. In this case, it is easier for the H5N8 to "learn" from its "colleagues".

Let us also not forget that the H5 family does have the capacity for human-to-human transmission chains because it has happened.

The current virus appeared in the PR China, Japan and Republic of Korea earlier in 2014 and millions of birds were destroyed. It now appears to have been carried to Europe by migrating wild birds, appearing in Mecklenberg, Western Pomerania, Germany on November 6 on a turkey fattening farm (1.880 birds died), then on November 16 in the Netherlands, on a chicken farm in Hekendorp (1,000 layer and breeding hens died and some 149.000 were destroyed) and this week, in Nafferton, East Yorkshire, Northern England on a duck breeding farm. 338 ducks died and 6.000 were culled. It affects mainly chickens, ducks, geese, swans and turkeys.

The measures taken for now are to destroy all the birds on farms as soon as the strain has been confirmed and to halt trade in poultry and eggs, establishing a ten-kilometer protection zone around the focus of infection, while monitoring the temperature of humans who have had direct contact with the birds.

While the WHO has stated that this virus is "unlikely to spread among humans", the WHO expert from the Global Influenza Program Elizabeth Mumford stated in Geneva yesterday at a Press Conference that "if it is circulating widely, there is no reason why we shouldn't see human cases".

That, coupled with what I have outlined above, is my case for concern, especially because the A H5N8 can indeed serve as an incubator for H1N1, which it highly pathogenic.

Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey*


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*Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey has worked as a correspondent, journalist, deputy editor, editor, chief editor, director, project manager, executive director, partner and owner of printed and online daily, weekly, monthly and yearly publications and media groups printed and distributed in Angola, Brazil, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Portugal, Mozambique and São Tomé and Principe Isles; the Russian Foreign Ministry publication Dialog and the Cuban Foreign Ministry Official Publications.


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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey