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Bird Flu Now Human Killer

Dutch Vet Dies of Fowl Plague Pneumonia
WebMD Health News

April 23, 2003 -- It's not as scary as SARS -- yet. But world health experts are keeping a nervous eye on the Netherlands, where an out-of-control bird flu recently killed its first person.

So far, 82 people -- all in the Netherlands -- have come down with the bird virus. Three of them caught it from another person. The virus causes pinkeye in most people, but some get flu symptoms. One was a 57-year-old veterinarian. He developed double pneumonia and died.

Albert D.M.E. Osterhaus, PhD, DVM, studies new viruses at the Institute of Virology, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, Netherlands. His lab was the first to prove that the SARS virus is the sole culprit in the ongoing SARS outbreaks. Even though he's continuing to study SARS, he keeps an eagle eye on bird flu. It's known to science as highly pathogenic avian influenza or HPAI.

"The chance of something awful happening from HPAI is very small," Osterhaus tells WebMD. "But even a very small chance of something very terrible is something to take seriously. If this would lead to pandemic influenza, that would have major consequences."

This is what keeps world health experts up at night, says medical epidemiologist Marjorie P. Pollack, MD. Pollock is a disease-surveillance monitor for the International Society of Infectious Diseases.

"The big concern for a pandemic is getting a new flu strain that nobody already has immunity against," Pollack tells WebMD. "With current human flu viruses you see shifts and drifts that let them infect some people who've had it before, but usually you see strains that a significant number of people remain protected against."

The bird flu is sweeping Netherlands and has broken into Belgium. In their effort to contain the virus, authorities have killed some 10 million chickens. It's not a new virus, but it's usually not very deadly. In fact, a less deadly outbreak in eastern Connecticut is being contained with a mass vaccination program. A similar, relatively harmless virus likely came to Netherlands in migrating ducks or geese. Somehow, it mutated into HPAI or what used to be called fowl plague.

Why this virus is infecting so many humans isn't clear, says Arnon Shimshony, DVM, retired chief veterinary officer for Israel and a professor at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

"This is a very unusual occurrence," Shimshony tells WebMD. "Lethal infection from birds to humans happened in Hong Kong in 1997. Several people died, but that was a different kind of virus, H5N1. This is H7N7, which usually does not infect humans. It is a bit concerning. Even the conjunctivitis [pinkeye] is unusual. In the past we didn't see this."

Despite its devastating effect on birds, the virus doesn't usually cause serious disease in humans. Most often it takes a pretty severe exposure to infected chickens for a person to get it. The three cases of human-to-human spread are worrisome -- but it's still not a virus that spreads easily in people.

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