Another flu virus threatens thirteen countries across Asia and Europe, killing 63 people and infecting 124 since 2003.

Philippine government officials are now alarmed of the lethal Influenza A H5N1, more commonly known as the bird flu virus, that might infect humans and cripple the country’s P150-billion poultry industry.

“Avian flu has a tendency to even surpass the SARS breakout because flu viruses (can) be transmitted via the air although all the infected cases nowadays are mostly because of eating infected birds,” said Prof. John Donnie Ramos of the Department of Biology, College of Science.

But unlike SARS, the bird flu virus is an infection caused by the influenza virus carried through birds’ intestines. Such carriers usually survive the infection; however, the infection is highly contagious among birds and can kill domesticated fowl like ducks and chickens, and even humans if infected.

Normally, avian flu viruses are non-lethal, but the H5N1 strain mutation has been the most lethal strain of avian influenza ever recorded. Last September, the United Nations stated that this flu strain could kill from five to 150 million people as it spreads.

To prevent a pandemic in the country, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has designated Department of Agriculture Secretary Domingo Panganiban as the “Anti-Avian Flu Czar” to spearhead the prevention of the disease entering the

country. Also, the government has strengthened the monitoring of migratory birds in 55 identified areas in the country, including bird trade ports like General Santos City, Davao City and Zamboanga City.

Migratory birds infected with the H5N1 strain are feared to infect local chickens and ducks. Migratory birds are expected to begin their seasonal journey to the Philippines this November to escape the harsh winter in Siberia. Other migratory birds usually leave the Northern Hemisphere, anticipating lack of food during winter, to search for a country with a warmer climate, such as the Philippines.

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Among the notable migratory birds seen in Olango Island, an international bird island sanctuary in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu, are the Asian Dowitcher, Chinese Egret, Eurasian Curfew Whimbrel, Black-tailed Godwit and Red Knot.

“Definitely, there are migratory birds around, (even) here in the campus. The problem with migratory birds, they are free to roam around. You can’t really prevent them from going anywhere. But so far, the Department of Health and even the Department of Agriculture do not admit any cases of bird flu,” Ramos said.

Although there is a growing concern that there might be a possible mutation of the virus, all the known cases are still due to contact with birds, Ramos said.

The World Health Organization is also alarmed by the H5N1 virus in the larger parts of Asia. More human beings are feared to be infected, especially in rural poultry farms, with direct or indirect contact with aerosols, discharges, and surfaces of infected wild ducks and chickens. Also, discharges can get into the nose or eyes of a person handling infected chickens.

A person infected with bird flu has similar symptoms as that of other influenza viruses. Initial symptoms are fever, muscle weakness and/or pain, sore throat, and cough. Sore eyes can also be seen in some patients. Once infected, patients may experience severe viral pneumonia, respiratory distress syndrome, and organ failure, leading to death.

In an article published in Time magazine, bird flu viruses attack the lungs of infected people. The virus, like any other flu viruses, contaminates a cell by connecting its hemagglutinin gene (the H in H5N1) with chemical receptors on the surface of the cell, making it easy to infect and spread throughout a host’s body.

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“Any viral infection nowadays (has) antiviral (treatments) that are available, but of course, the best way to prevent this is via immunization,” Ramos said. “Vaccine is not available for avian flu. But H5N1 is well known nowadays so definitely, there will be a new antibody (that) will be produced against it and could be used for vaccination.”

When antiviral drugs, particularly some newer pharmaceutical medicines, are taken after symptoms appear, the illness can be less severe. But the H5N1 bird flu is resistant to older classes of flu drugs.

“Like any other viral infection, the treatment is done symptomatically. You don’t specifically kill the source of the virus, you simply treat the symptoms that is exhibited by the (infected) human,” Ramos said.

Early last year, bird flu outbreaks had been reported in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. It is feared to trigger a worldwide infection that could kill millions. With reports from www.who.int and www.cdc.gov

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