Over the past couple of years, there's been a lot in the news about bird flu, and while much of the reporting has been valid, a lot has been on the hysterical side, which has led to public confusion and unnecessary worry.
The fact is that bird flu is a cause for concern, but it isn't the certain death sentence that some reports would have us believe, so put simply; here are the facts.
Like humans, birds can catch flu. The type that has got people worried is H5N1, which has in a few cases, been fatal to humans. In 1997 it was discovered that humans can catch the flu if they have direct contact with infected birds. In mid November this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) had stated that 258 cases of H5N1 in humans had occurred across the world resulting in 153 deaths. Since currently less than 300 people the world over have been infected, there is no major concern that humans catching the virus directly from birds will cause an excessive number of fatalities.
The worry comes from the concern that it may be possible for the virus to mutate into a form where it is easily passed from person to person. This has not yet happened and it is important to remember that there is no certainty that it will ever happen, but it is right for the government to be concerned, and to take precautionary measures.
There have been a few cases of human-to-human transmission, but so far none which could cause a pandemic, as they have not mutated into a sustainable form.
If the virus did gain the ability to pass easily between humans it is true that the results could be tragic. Worldwide, experts predict anything between two million and 50 million deaths.
However what is less widely reported is that they also say that the mortality rate - which right now stands at approximately 50% of confirmed cases - could drop as it mutates.
Currently organisations across the world are working to produce a vaccine. This is tricky, because a vaccine works by injecting tiny amounts of that exact virus into a person, which they can then fight off and become immune. Because the virus has not mutated, no one knows exactly what it would look like, and so they can't develop an exact vaccine.
But all is not lost; trial products offering protection against the H5N1 strain are being produced.
There are also antiviral drugs in development, so if person does become affected, they can go some way to destroying or inhibiting the growth and reproduction of the virus. Antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu are already available and being stockpiled by countries including the UK.
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