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November 30, 2023

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Researchers sweat over flu

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a three-part series on how the avian bird flu may or may not affect Americans – and what’s being done on a local level to prepare for it.

With concerns that the “bird flu” virus currently sending a scare through Asia may start to transmit between humans, scientists and health officials across America are working diligently to understand avian influenza.

Commonly referred to as the “bird flu,” avian influenza most recently came into the American lexicon eight years ago when a case was diagnosed in humans.

Bird flu has yet to be diagnosed in America, but scientists and health officials fear an influenza pandemic – a worldwide outbreak of disease.

And although general interest has been recent, some researchers have been studying avian influenza for years.

One such researcher is Richard Slemons, an associate professor in veterinary preventative medicine at The Ohio State University, who has been researching avian influenza for 36 years.


Research brings answers

Slemons is part of a national project called The Avian Influenza Virus Program, being conducted under a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Slemons works with trying to describe the national history of viruses and seeing which are pathogenic.

Pathogenic viruses have the capability of causing disease by either originating or producing the disease. These include the H5N1 virus – the strain of avian flu infecting humans in Asia.

“We have a network of people working around the country,” Slemons said. “We have not found any indication of the H5N1 virus in the U.S. We’re just doing ongoing monitoring. We’re trying to provide an early detection system.”

Slemons is currently processing specimens from wild birds in several U.S. locations, looking to see if these American fowl are carrying the same bird flu.

“I don’t think we should be panicked, but I think we should be alert,” he said.

Researchers in several states are each looking into various areas of avian influenza, according to the national program’s director Daniel Perez, an assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Maryland.

One of the most recent findings of Perez’s research is bird species receptors – which may be key in how the transmission from birds to humans occurs.

Perez is working with fowl, like quail, that normally don’t carry the virus. Natural virus carriers are water fowl, but when domestic fowl like chickens and turkeys become infected, the virus replicates well and becomes deadly.


Will history repeat?

Part of that concern comes from the natural chain of events – including three pandemics that have occurred in the past century.

Slemons’ years of research on avian flu lead him to believe the timing is right for another influenza pandemic.

“One of the things that I found initially in the early 60s and 70s – this cycling of pandemic outbreaks in humans regularly occurs,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, but based on history, we think we should be having another pandemic.”

And according to history, pandemics tend to occur every 60 to 70 years, said Scott Rogers, chair of the University Biological Science department.

“There are other lesser pandemics, but it [the current outbreak] coincides with generational times with the human population,” he said.

Both the avian virus and human virus are very virulent, according to Rogers, meaning they spread rapidly with high mortality rates.

Because of this high mortality rate, the agenda for the U.S. poultry industry is to aggressively go after the avian virus and eliminate it, Slemons said.

“The problem in Asia is that the virus got into the commercial poultry industry and they let it persist and become an endemic,” he said.


Farmers may run a risk

Now despite the virus not being in the United States, from what is known, people who work in close contact with birds are most prone to contracting the virus, Rogers said.

“The biggest risk is if you are raising birds or dealing with birds in some way,” he said.

Birds that naturally have the virus pass it on to domestic fowl like chickens, which are then handled by humans, who contract the virus in return.

“I think the risks are very small right now, but it’s a probability – the more you have it spreading in the bird population and coming in contact with farm animals, there’s more chance for recombination,” Rogers said.

But as the H5N1 strain has not yet been found in the United States, some have little concern of a pandemic occurring.

“Since the avian flu is new, there is no human-to-human transmission of avian flu, so the chance of it coming here is minimal at best,” said Glenn Egelman, director of the University’s Student Health Services. “As long as we don’t have people bringing chickens from southeast Asia, we’re OK.”

While the current strain of flu can only be contracted from fowl-to-human and not human-to-human, in the past, such strains have mutated.

“The issue with avian flu is it has not been seen in humans until recently,” Egelman said. “If a human can contract it through a bird, it’s not all that long a step before it’s human-to-human.”

Even with all the speculation about the avian flu, researchers say nothing is certain.

“We are preparing for a pandemic that we don’t know is going to happen,” Perez said.

And with all the concern over avian influenza, people may be prone to overlook a more deadly killer – influenza – not the avian kind.


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