Will bird flu stage a comeback?

Avian flu never disappeared, and now the H5N1 virus has mutated into a deadly new strain

Workers carry infected poultry from a farm in India where fresh cases of Avian flu were found: The contagious virus may be back and stronger than before.
(Image credit: REUTERS)

Bird flu fears have been fading for several years, but the virus that causes avian flu hasn't vanished. In fact, the H5N1 virus has been spreading again across Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently issued a report warning that the world could still face an epidemic that would sicken and kill far more than the 331 people who have died from the virus since it was discovered in 2003. Here, a brief guide:

Why is bird flu making headlines now?

Mutations of the bird flu virus have started to appear. By 2008, effective control measures like vaccinations and culling of bird flocks had eliminated H5N1 from many countries. But it has found refuge in wild and domesticated bird flocks. The FAO is now warning of a "possible major resurgence" that could include "a mutant virus that appears to be unfazed by available vaccines," says Scott Hensley on NPR.

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Could this mutant bird flu virus spread?

Yes, and the FAO is urging public health officials to step up monitoring of the virus. Wild bird migrations have spread strains of the virus "to countries that had been virus-free for several years, including Israel, the Palestinian territories, Bulgaria, Romania, Nepal, and Mongolia," says the Associated Press. Officials fear this could continue and carry H5N1 into countries that have little experience with the disease.

Is bird flu always deadly to people?

Not in all cases. Vaccines and anti-viral medications, such as Tamiflu, can help to control the virus, but new strains of H5N1 spread faster than vaccines can be developed to stop them. So far this year, eight people in Cambodia have been diagnosed with avian flu — and all eight of them died. "Preparedness and surveillance remain essential," says FAO official Juan Lubroth, as quoted by the New York Daily News. "This is no time for complacency. No one can let their guard down with H5N1."

Sources: Associated Press, NPR, NY Daily News, Reuters

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