Thursday, May 04, 2006

Top bird flu scientist says H5N1 is worst flu virus

One of the world’s leading experts on bird flu said Thursday the H5N1 virus is like nothing he’s ever seen, and there are still way too many gaps in planning and knowledge for the world to grapple with it in the event of a pandemic.

“I’ve worked with flu all my life, and this is the worst influenza virus that I have ever seen,’’ said Robert G. Webster, a virologist at the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. “We have to realize that this influenza virus in poultry becomes systemic ... If that happens in humans, God help us.’’

Webster predicted it would take at least 10 mutations before the H5N1 virus could transmit from human to human. But he said there’s no way to know how long - or if - it would take for that to happen.

“All of those mutations are out there, but ... the virus hasn’t succeeded in bringing it together,’’ he said at the end of a two-day bird flu conference in Singapore organized by The Lancet medical journal.

Experts fear the H5N1 bird flu virus will mutate into a form that easily spreads from person to person, potentially sparking a global pandemic. So far, most human cases have been linked to contact with infected birds.

Webster also called for more pre-pandemic vaccine to be stockpiled, calling current efforts “miserable.’’

He said new research in ferrets suggests that vaccination with a bird flu virus that circulated earlier in Hong Kong, protected the animals from dying when they were infected with the H5N1 virus currently circulating in Vietnam. Such vaccination could also be used as a primer in humans, he said.

If a pandemic strain emerges “you will probably get infected, you will probably get very sick, but you probably won’t die,’’ he said. “So, I think we’re missing out here.’’ Webster said much more research is needed in many areas to understand the virus’s behavior and transmissibility.

He said cultural issues are also preventing autopsies on victims killed by the H5N1 virus, hindering valuable scientific research. In many Asian countries, where most of the human bird flu deaths have occurred, people do not believe in disturbing the body after death.

He said post-mortem examinations have been performed on less than six of the 113 people killed by the bird flu virus since it began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in late 2003.

“The cultural ban in this region on autopsies has to be worked out somehow,’’ he said. “Tissues have to be taken from cadavers to understand the biology of these viruses.’’

Source used in this story:

Associated Press

Posted by john T. on 05/04 at 11:01 AM
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