News of a new "seal flu" has many fearing a repeat of the 2009 swine flu outbreak that infected more than 5.7 million in the United States before peaking as a level 5 on the WHO's 6-point pandemic alert. The H3N8 flu virus was discovered after the mysterious death of nearly 200 harbor seals off the United States' northeastern coast. Describing it as "a combination we haven't seen in disease before," researchers warned that the new strain of influenza A could have severe repercussions for human health.
The real shock of the story may be the public realization that such doe-eyed creatures could cause harm. While mosquitoes and ticks, those pesky harbingers of West Nile, dengue fever, cholera, Lyme disease, and Kyasanur fever (among other assorted viral, fungal, and bacterial pathogens) are universally hated, it's hard to believe the Earth's more cuddly creatures could breed evil. Here's another 13 to ruin your next trip to the petting zoo:
Peacocks are dying in droves in Pakistan's Thar Desert region in an outbreak scientists believe is linked to Newcastle disease. Highly contagious in birds, the viral infection is currently rare in humans. Its unique replication properties make it a potential candidate for agroterrorism, but more positive headway been made in its use as a human cancer treatment.
Found primarily in Latin America, armadillos are better known for their unique defense mechanism than their role as a global disease vector. Beneath their shell, however, these mammals shield leprosy, a rare bacterial infection that attacks the skin and nervous system. Though associated more with the bible than modern medicine, the disease remains active throughout the world -- with armadillos responsible for more than a third of infections in the United States.
The world's largest mammal offers plenty of real estate for influenza A, a viral flu strain with the most potential for interspecies transmission. Luckily, the chances for accidental contact remain slim -- just another reason to skip the whale meat.
Monkeys and apes
Described by malaria researchers as a "reservoir for human disease," monkeys and apes are widely known for harboring emerging zoonotic diseases. The HIV virus originated in African monkeys and strains of malaria, Ebola, and monkeypox virus continue to be created or transmitted by monkey and ape populations -- not to mention the cases of measles, rabies, tuberculosis, salmonellosis, shigellosis, amebiasis, balatidiasis, herpes B, giardiasis and helminthes believed to have appeared first in man's closest relative.
Dogs and cats
While many a dog-lover cheered reports of a feline parasite's negative impact on human dopamine production, man's best friend carries its own risks. Though undulant fever is more commonly associated with other species, human cases of the leptospirosis bacteria, an infection whose effect ranges from flu-like symptoms to liver and kidney failure, encephalitis, and pulmonary involvement, have been reported to originate in dogs.
More commonly associated with rats, plague seems to have chosen prairie dogs as its modern rodent host. One leg of a complex threesome that includes mice and fleas, prairie dog coteries across North America have been struck by a mass outbreak of bubonic and sylvatic plague. In an effort to cull the epidemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has implemented a mass fumigation campaign.
While flying foxes are their natural reservoir, the Hendra and Nipah viruses have adapted to survive within horses where they take residence alongside anthrax. Worse, equine encephalitis virus, a pathogen listed as a global priority by the Global Early Warning System for Major Animal Diseases, Including Zoonoses, has spread globally. Transmitted by mosquitos, the virus can be fatal in both horses and humans.
Rabbits and hares
Guinea pigs and hamsters
However popular with the preschool set, guinea pigs and hamsters are still rodents. Next time your kid asks to bring one home remember - these furry beasts are disease vectors of lymphocytic choriomeningitis, leptospirosis, yersiniosis and salmonellosis. Handle with gloves.
TIMM SCHAMBERGER/AFP/Getty Images
Google Earth is fast becoming a tool of choice for looking at big problems like genocide in Darfur. The latest innovative use of the 3-D mapping software? Tracking bird flu.
Researchers led by Daniel Janies, an assistant professor of biomedical informatics at Ohio State University, used Google Earth to create a color-coded "evolutionary tree" of the avian flu virus (H5N1) over a 10-year time period. They published their findings in the latest issue of Systemic Biology, a bimonthly journal. By showing the data in new ways, the mapping tool could help other researchers and public health officials develop better strategies to fight the virus. (If you've seen the latest episodes of the television show Heroes, it looks somewhat like Hiro Nakamura's map of the past. But in this case, the map's colors refer to different types of hosts for the H5N1 virus.)
China is the latest country to be hoarding its bird flu samples, according to a Reuters report today. China has not shared any human H5N1 samples of bird flu with World Health Organization-accredited laboratories since April 2006—even though it has seen five more human infections—leading to fears that the country may be obstructing global efforts to track changes in the virus and fight it. Indonesia has also been refusing to share its bird flu samples with the WHO (opting for a private deal instead), and only consented to resume sample-sharing after reaching an agreement with the WHO after a two-day crisis meeting last month in Jakarta. The meeting concluded with the WHO promising to develop a new mechanism for sample-sharing that would be fairer to poorer countries.
Indonesia had stopped sharing samples because, the country's officials argued, the samples led to expensive vaccinations, which Indonesia then found difficult to afford. China's decision, however, has less to do with drug access than with protecting the samples for its own homegrown laboratories. But China also resents the way scientists and health experts in the developed world monopolize drug production and knowledge. Chinese scientists were particularly irked when, after sending samples to the WHO in 2004, their analyses and work were published in a journal by foreigners—with no credit given to the Chinese scientists. The foreign researchers have since apologized, but the experience has clearly impacted China's views about collaborating with international experts. Even so, Henk Bekedam, the WHO's representative in China, is confident that China will soon resume its sample-sharing. But without guarantees of the same nature as Indonesia's, there's good reason to be skeptical.
While the world watches stock markets from Shanghai to Chicago cautiously rebound from Tuesday’s deep losses, public health officials have their eyes on a new futures market: the Avian Influenza Prediction Market, or "bird flu index," run by the Iowa Electronic Markets project at the University of Iowa.
It works like this: A select group of public health officials and pandemic experts are given about $100 a year to place bets on the likelihood of bird flu's projected path. (Fortunately for those of us who aren't steeped in epidemiology, people who might otherwise profit from the sale of, say, flu vaccines or masks aren't invited to participate.) The bets are simple and specific. One current market asks "traders" to bet on the likelihood that the dreaded H5N1 strain will infect a human in Hong Kong by July 1. Right now, a share in a "yes" vote is running at 43 cents, which indicates that the market sees a 43 percent likelihood of infection. By contrast, the chances of the flu infecting a human in North or South America are running at 5 cents.
Though the project is not without controversy, it's garnered far less outcry than the terrorism futures market that the Pentagon briefly introduced a few years ago. Which might mean the American public has more faith in the collective predictions of the public heath sector than the DoD. More likely, though, it could mean that, after years of hearing dire warnings about the threat of bird flu, people just want the medical community to put its money where its mouth is.
Indonesia, the country with the highest number of human bird flu victims, has decided to share samples of its H5N1 virus with drug manufacturer Baxter International instead of the World Health Organization. In return, Indonesia will gain full access to any vaccine Baxter develops, according to the agreement. The move comes as the WHO is striving to extend international sharing arrangements for seasonal flu strains and potential pandemics, so the global health body is very concerned about the deal.
Baxter has made it clear, though, that Indonesia's decision not to share with the WHO has nothing to do with its agreement. So why is Indonesia refusing to collaborate now? Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari explains:
[Specimens sent to the WHO] have been forwarded to their collaborating centre. There they have been used for various reasons such as vaccine development or research.
Later they sold the discovery to us… This is not fair. We are the ones who got sick, they took the sample through WHO and with WHO consent and they tried to produce it for their own use.”
The WHO fears that everyone will lose out if other countries follow suit. Drugs would likely become more expensive for those countries not party to a private deal with a drug company. Ironically, through its arrangement with Baxter, Indonesia could actually be making its problems worse in the long run.
Regular readers will know that FP and Passport have been following closely the evidence that China is less than fully transparent on public health issues. Karl Taro Greenfeld gave a gripping account of China's effort to downplay SARS in our March/April issue. More recently, Passport linked here and here to hints of official dissembling on bird flu. Today, the Times of London is running a story that has the Chinese government fessing up to a coverup.
China revealed today that its first human death from bird flu was a soldier who died of the H5N1 strain in 2003, two years before the country first publicly acknowledged a human infection. The confirmation showed that the virus was present in China before the outbreak of the virus was disclosed elsewhere in Asia and raised questions about Beijing’s ability to detect emerging diseases, as well as its transparency.
We'll keep an eye out for future twists to what may be a complicated story.
The bird flu hysteria that gripped the world's media outlets and health organizations has been subsiding for some time now. It's been a number of years since the first panicked reports of the H5N1 virus emerged. Sure, this week Thailand registered its first bird flu fatality this year, but the virus hasn't mutated into a form that can be transmitted between humans and the world hasn't suffered an avian influenza pandemic. And now, it looks like the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline may have created a cheap vaccine.
Initial trials have been very successful, and the worst side-effects appear to be limited to "a mild fever". The vaccine can be mass-produced easily and costs no more than $7 a shot. Glaxo is already speaking with a number of international bodies and health NGOs - not to mention George W. Bush and officials at the Gates Foundation - about distributing the vaccine en masse by 2007. Perhaps we'll soon add bird flu to the list of recent health scares like SARS that never lived up to their billing. But what will we do about all those stockpiles of tamiflu?
Government officials and financial leaders got together this morning in Washington, D.C. to discuss the economic impact of an avian flu pandemic. The not-so-exciting consensus? Uncertainty.
The two most popular words at the conference, held at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, were "it depends". It seems there are simply too many factors - the nature of the virus itself, the flexibility of supply chains, the capacity of critical information networks - to give any kind of accurate portrait of what an epidemic would mean for markets.
So what is the critical determing factor on which everyone agrees? How people - and governments - respond to a crisis when it emerges.
It's amazing to me that I hadn't heard about this before today, but a strain of bird flu may have hit North America. Last week, a goose that died on Prince Edward Island, Canada, tested positive for an H5 avian flu virus. Two farms were placed under quarantine. But subsequent tests on other birds have had negative results. There's nothing to be alarmed about, though. More tests are still underway, and scientists say any H5 virus, if in fact that's what it is, is mostly like a North American strain of low pathogenicity, and not the deadly Asian H5N1 virus. So, no need to run for the hills just yet, though I wouldn't want to be a goose in Canada about now, what with "cull" becoming such a popular word.
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