Barbara Young

There is no shortage of threats on just about every front imaginable these days. The economy is broken; seemingly good people have gone bad and begun stealing hard-earned money from their neighbors and friends; loyal and productive workers are losing their jobs and homes; Salmonella-laced peanut butter is making some people sick and killing others. Don’t even mention the threat of terrorism.

Then there is bird flu.

A pandemic influenza could produce a public health emergency that is more daunting than any other type of naturally occurring, accidental or terrorist-instigated event that our nation has experienced or is likely to experience, according to a U.S. government report. It could affect essentially every community in the nation within the space of a few weeks and, if comparable to or more severe than the influenza pandemic of 1918, could result in 25 percent or more of the population ultimately experiencing life-threatening illness and/or being forced to dispense with normal activities to care for victims.

A World Health Organization report indicates that the number of confirmed human cases of the H5N1 virus cases since 2003 now stands at 394, and the number of deaths total 248. The Jan. 15, 2009, report followed news of the death of an Egyptian from the virus causing highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

Notably, five years after the avian influenza strain H5N1 started killing poultry and people in Southeast Asia, researchers still do not know what to make of the dangerous and unpredictable virus.

Anybody not convinced of the world’s interdependence in more ways than the global reliance on crude oil for just about every consumer product imaginable is beyond out of touch with reality. Reading about bird-flu sightings (too many for comfort in January 2009 alone) scares me more than our global economic woes, for I believe there is a change a-coming bringing better days ahead.

What causes avian influenza?

Experts say the disease is caused by a type of influenza virus hosted by birds, but may infect several species of mammals. Identified in Italy in the early 1900s, the disease is now known to exist worldwide. A strain of the H5N1-type of avian influenza virus that emerged in 1997 has been identified as the most likely source of a future influenza pandemic. Strains of avian influenza virus may infect various types of animals, including birds, pigs, horses, seals, whales and humans. However, wild fowl act as natural asymptomatic carriers, spreading it to more susceptible domestic stocks. Avian influenza virus spreads in the air and in manure. Thankfully, there is no current evidence of the virus surviving in well-cooked meat.

USDA enters bird-flu risk assessment phase

As bird flu is a clear and present danger, a global battle plan is the only prudent judgment call for action. For its part, USDA released a draft of its risk assessment for contracting highly pathogenic avian influenza from eating poultry products, shell eggs and egg products. Feedback on the 186-page report, which addresses highly pathogenic H5 and H7 subtypes, was due this year by the end of January. “Despite this lack of evidence, human exposure to contaminated poultry and eggs is a concern for food-safety experts,” USDA reports.

Experts used available information on avian influenza viruses and mathematical modeling to make risk estimates for several poultry and egg scenarios, including production, processing and consumer preparation. For example, the estimates assume that the viral load in a serving of poultry relates to the time between when the bird was infected and when it was slaughtered.

What’s happening at ground zero?

Former President Bush mobilized the nation to prepare for an influenza pandemic in 2005 calling for the deployment of a $7.1 billion national pandemic plan. Congress responded quickly.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency began the “humane euthanization” of approximately 60,000 birds on the infected premises in British Columbia where H5 avian influenza was confirmed on Jan. 26, 2009. Although a necessary course of action, it came after the fact. What about preventative measures?

USDA’s risk-assessment draft comprises several initiatives, including on-farm avian influenza testing offering the greatest chance for curbing human infections; and cooking poultry to the FSIS-recommended temperature of 165°F to inactivate the virus. Relying on mortality observations on the farm and after transport isn’t as practical, especially if birds are late in the grow-out period, the draft cautions.

To be sure, warding off bird-flu Ebola requires a concerted effort by human beings everywhere. One thing is certain; we humans have little control over birds in flight. Besides, they have a natural right to air space. Our action has to be at ground zero.