Breaking the Asian Bird Flu Cycle

Asian bird flu, also called avian flu or just bird flu, is caused by a virus that normally only infects birds (and in rare cases pigs). The health concerns in countries where people live in close proximity with birds, such as in Asia, have been the infection of humans with this flu strain. There is little evidence of human-to-human transmission of the strain, known as H5N1, beyond only a handful of family cases, but there is greater potential if the virus mutates. Mutations in the virus’s ability to adhere to cells in the human respiratory system would make it a formidable opponent for modern medicine.

One theory is that, as wild birds migrate, they take the flu with them, sharing it with domestic populations in other areas of the world as well as native wild birds in those regions. These birds then could spread the virus among the human inhabitants. The first human cases were documented in the open farm markets of Vietnam, China, and Indonesia. In 2006 a case was reported in the Middle East. The presence of the virus in ducks in Nigeria show that is has spread even further. Some articles dispute that migratory pathways are to blame, even though that is the mechanism proposed by the World Health Organization, and state that airplane travel allows human carriers to spread the disease. Although this may be true, those people would not be capable of passing the virus to other people and the spread would not continue. The migration theory is supported by the die-off of 6000 migratory birds beginning at the Qinghai Lake nature reserve in central China in late April 2005. There is also accumulating evidence that the virus follows trade routes, which would most likely be in birds being transported for sale.

Current containment procedures include killing, or culling, the possibly infected birds on farms and by restricting contact with known carriers. It is advised that cats be kept indoors in areas of known infection since they have been implicated as carriers of the virus, such as has been found about SARS, another virus originating in Asia several years ago. Also the ingestion of raw poultry and eggs is discouraged for many reasons.

The recurrence of bird flu will continue as long as there are wild bird populations. Antibiotics are not beneficial since this is a virus. Eliminating migratory birds will damage ecosystems. Humans can do what they can to minimize exposure and sanitize, with mild soap and warm water, anything that comes into contact with birds. Also, proper reporting of human cases to health organizations will help prepare them for what is ahead and eventually lead to an understanding that may eventually break the bird flu cycle.