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April 2006, Volume 12, Number 2

Avian Flu

Avian or bird flu (H5N1 virus) spread from Asia in 2003 to Western Europe and Africa during the winter and spring of 2006. Birds in 40 countries and at least 175 people were infected; half of those infected died. Migrating birds have spread the flu, and European officials who feared that the wild birds would pass the virus to commercial poultry farms ordered farmers to keep chickens indoors to avoid contact with wild birds.

Most people who have contracted the virus were infected through close contact with live chickens. Even though no chickens in Western Europe were found to be infected, sales of poultry and eggs fell sharply, and thousands of poultry workers were laid off. If chickens catch the virus, all in a wide region must be killed to prevent the virus from spreading.

Bird flu showed up in Nigeria in February 2006, likely as a result of importing chicks from Turkey. The fact that bird flu was likely transported via commercial poultry trade led to calls for heightened inspections. If the H5N1 virus mutates and acquires the ability to pass from human to human, rather than from infected birds to humans as up until now, there could be a global flu pandemic.

Bird flu has devastated flocks of chickens and ducks in Egypt's Nile Delta, reducing the stock of 100 million broiler chickens by 95 percent from both disease and culling. The government offered farmers who kept a few chickens or ducks $1 a bird, but some families hid them because they thought they could get more at markets.

The H5N1 virus has two of the three traits that can lead to a pandemic, an ability to jump from birds to humans and make humans sick. If H5N1 develops the ability to pass from one human to another, there could be a pandemic During the 1918 flu pandemic, about 40 million people died worldwide.

The book, Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, ranks interventions that can save or prolong lives. Among the many cheap interventions are speed bumps, which can reduce traffic accidents, a leading cause of death in developing countries.