Faster testing detects bird flu

By Madeline Keleher

The Food and Drug Administration approved a test on Friday that can detect specific strains of bird flu faster than before.

The test, developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is called the Influenza A/H5 (Asian lineage) Virus Real-time RT-PCR Primer and Probe Set.

This test marks key progress in the ongoing fight against bird flu. It tests for H5 influenza and gives results in just four hours – far superior to the two to three days that previous testing methods required.

Bird flu, also called avian influenza, is caused by the H5N1 virus. The CDC’s new test identifies the presence of H5. Birds infected with the H5N1 virus spread it through their saliva, feces and nasal secretions, according to the CDC Web site.

In humans, bird flu has a seven-day incubation period. Symptoms can include muscle aches, high fever, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal or chest pain, and in some cases bleeding from the nose and gums.

“Eating chicken or poultry products does not increase your risk of avian flu,” said Yvette Johnson, assistant professor of Veterinary Clinical Medicine, in a lecture on bird flu presented at the Illini Union on Monday. “The people who have developed it have had direct contact with chickens – slaughtering them, plucking them.”

In chickens, bird flu has a mortality rate of 90 to 100 percent in a span of just 48 hours. In humans, the mortality rate is 53 percent.

“Basically there is no place in the entire world that is sufficiently prepared to handle avian flu – we don’t have the antivirals, the vaccines, the surveillance,” said Melaney Arnold, communications manager of the Illinois Department of Health. “That is something we are working on.”

The clearance of the CDC’s H5 test comes just after the World Health Organization’s Feb. 2 release of an updated report on bird flu’s toll on human life thus far. There have been 161 cases worldwide of this strain of avian influenza in humans, resulting in 86 deaths, since its discovery in December 2003, according to the report.

“It is very unlikely that in the United States, in Illinois, bird flu will happen in the human population,” Arnold said.

The virus, however, has become increasingly prevalent elsewhere in the world. Last year there were 94 human cases of bird flu, resulting in 41 deaths. In 2006 there have already been 18 new cases and 10 deaths, according to the WHO report.

About five to 20 percent of the U.S. population contracts some form of influenza each year, and on average 36,000 people die annually from an influenza virus. Typically, mortality due to the flu is most common in the very young and the very old. This is not the case with bird flu.

“With these influenza pandemics, the highest mortality rates are in the people in the prime of their life,” Johnson said.

Although a widespread outbreak of bird flu in humans would be disastrous, the chances of one occurring are minimal.

“In a worst case scenario, yes, (avian flu) could be a threat to international security,” Arnold said, while stressing the small probability of such an event.

Julian Palmore, University professor and director of the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and Industrial Security, said two to three major global bird migratory paths converge in Alaska. In response to this, Alaska is conducting a statewide sampling of the incoming migratory birds.

“Alaska is a lookout point for the lower 48 (states), because many birds migrate between Asia and Alaska,” Palmore said.

Despite these samplings and relative unlikelihood of a bird flu pandemic, Palmore said more action should be taken.

“What the U.S. needs to do is allow money to be sent to Asia, and to send researchers to Asia to help the WHO in detection and surveillance,” he said.