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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: H5N1, la frayeur des basses-cours

by By Vincent Defait

H5N1 Virus: Fear in the Farmyard

Translated by Carol Gullidge

Translated Thursday 23 February 2006, by Carol Gullidge

Avian Flu: Since Saturday, France has been directly affected by the animal disease. This comes as no surprise.

It’s no joke and it’s not unexpected. Precautionary measures were taken on Saturday as soon as the epizootic disease arrived on French soil. The highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of the avian influenza virus - with its potential to mutate into a human influenza virus capable of causing a pandemic - has been detected in a dead duck in the Ain region, north east of Lyons, and around 15 other birds found further north in the departments of the Somme, Aisne, and Seine-et-Marne are currently undergoing tests.

Nothing astounding about that, given the rapid propagation of the virus over recent weeks. France has thus become the sixth EU country to be directly affected by the animal virus, after Greece, Italy, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia. On Saturday, India also reported the presence of the virus on its territory, in the State of Maharashtra, where some 50,000 fowl have recently died. On February 8, Nigeria became the first African country to harbour the virus - a great blow to officials of international human and animal health organisations. Indeed, the continent is particularly badly equipped to face problems of this type. The disease first appeared in Asia at the end of 2003. What with the scaremongering and the rational fears, the known facts of the matter can be summed up in seven questions.

What is bird flu called?

The so-called “influenza” viruses are grouped into three strains: types A, B, and C, long since familiar to us. The first - and the commonest - can be divided into fifteen H subtypes and nine N subtypes, depending on the molecules which make up the outer membrane of the virus. The H5N1 variety, present in Asia since the end of December, 2003, is pathogenic to birds.
“All the Type-A influenza viruses, including those regularly found to cause seasonal epidemics in man, are genetically unstable and well adapted to evading their hosts’ immune defence systems”, explains the World Health Organisation (WHO). This instability is characterised by an antigenic “drift”, which impedes protection against the virus.

How is the virus propagated?

This is without doubt the question that raises the most uncertainties. The most obvious culprits are migratory birds, suspected by some people of being able to carry the virus over great distances without becoming diseased themselves. They are then presumed to infect the far more susceptible domestic poultry. To date, no healthy migratory bird has been found to carry the highly pathogenic virus: most of the swans that have died of the flu in Europe travel only short distances and come mainly from Eastern Europe.
Trade in poultry - especially illegal trading - hampers the task of veterinary officials. This could be how the virus became established in Nigeria, far from the usual routes of wild birds. One might equally be surprised at the discovery of the disease, only recently, in India: on the route of certain migratory birds, the country ought to have been infected sooner. Uncertainties, to which can be added inadequate systems for detection of the disease in some countries, complicate the plotting of the chronological progression of sites of infection.

How does it spread?

The virus is transmitted through respiratory secretions or faeces of infected animals. Wild birds are exposed to the infection in an aquatic environment contaminated by infected faeces, while confined species facilitate transmission of the virus.

Can all birds carry the virus?

Almost all birds can be infected and go on to infect others. But it seems that some species are more susceptible than others to the virus. This is true of certain swans that act in Europe as advanced warning of the spreading of the virus, but also of farmyard chickens and turkeys. Pet birds can be infected, although the very fact of their captivity makes this unlikely.

Is it a danger to humans?

Only if the animal virus “reassorts” and merges with a classic human influenza virus - which could happen in an animal that has been infected by both viruses simultaneously. We talk about “major antigenic variation”, which results in the creation of a new virus. This new strain possesses the pathogenicity of the animal virus and the genetic “keys” needed to infect humans. Until now, this phenomenon has not yet been observed. Pigs could act as the host for this fusion, capable as they are of catching both human and avian influenza, but it seems that it may be possible to pass the virus directly from birds to humans. However, the 171 cases of human infection reported since 2003 are the result of prolonged and repeated exposure to infected fowl, and in a confined environment to boot. In other words, one would have to live for quite a while in close contact with one’s sick chickens before becoming infected.

What should we do if we find a dead bird?

Don’t handle it, and inform the authorities.

Is it safe to eat poultry?

Without any shadow of doubt. The virus is destroyed during cooking. Only the slaughtering and plucking of poultry carry any risk - not its consumption.

Translator’s note:
For more information on bird flu and regular updates on its increasingly worrying international outbreaks, readers are encouraged to consult the World Health Organisation’s site: www.who.int/csr/disease/avian_influenza/en/

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