Doctors are warning those with weak immune systems to be aware as the avian influenza gains speed in Asia.
“It is only a matter of time before the H5N1 (bird flu) virus mutates into a form that will allow it to be transmitted from human to human,” said Dr. Michael Liebman, a member of the infectious diseases division at the McGill University Health Centre.
According to Dr. Liebman, viruses always end up mutating into a strain that allows them to jump from person to person.
“It has happened before and it definitely will happen again,” he said.
If and when it does mutate, the people who will be most at risk are those with weak immune systems; old people and young children. However, that doesn’t mean healthy people are immune to the virus. Prolonged exposure may eventually allow the virus to overcome healthy immune systems, and infect them as well.
Up to now, the only treatment for the H5N1 virus is for birds and it is unknown if medications would work for humans. However, Dr. Liebman said that the effectiveness of antibiotics will diminish with time, and as the virus grows stronger, it will eventually be able to resist antibiotics.
H5N1 is a strain of avian influenza that is commonly found in bird intestines. It is non-lethal but the new variant has mutated into a lethal virus and has caused the death of 120 million birds through disease or culling. So far, 118 human cases have been reported resulting in 61 fatalities. The human symptoms of avian influenza are similar to those of the common flu, including fever, cough, sore throat, and sore muscles. In the most severe cases, pneumonia and severe respiratory problems can occur and lead to death.
On September 29, 2005, Dr. David Nabarro, the senior UN system co-ordinator for Avian and Human Influenza, warned that an outbreak of avian flu could kill up to 150 million people. To date, the H5N1 strain of the virus has killed 62 people in Asia since 2003. Birds infected with the virus have been found in Romania, Turkey, Greece and Russia, but no human cases have been confirmed in Europe.