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Killer Bird Flu Fuels Plague Fears

New Worldwide Flu May Be Brewing in Asia
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WebMD Health News

Jan. 15, 2004 -- Is a new killer flu brewing in Asia? All the ingredients are there -- and world health experts are worried.

Here's the recipe. Take a huge number of chickens infected with a kind of flu virus new to humans. Mix well with millions of people during a normal flu season.

That recipe is already in the huge flu mixing bowl of East Asia. Will it produce a new killer flu? Nobody knows. At least three people in Vietnam are known to have died after catching the bird flu now devastating the chicken industries of Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan. Another eight deaths are suspected.

That's bad. But it would be much, much worse if the bug learned to spread easily from person to person. That might mean history's fourth worldwide flu epidemic -- what health experts call pandemic flu.

"The ingredients for pandemic flu exist. But we haven't seen any yet," World Health Organization (WHO) spokeswoman Maria Cheng tells WebMD. "But the more cases we see of avian flu jumping to humans, the greater the risk."

Why Avian Flu Scares Experts

What's to worry? Wouldn't a new flu be just -- well, flu?

There's really no way to tell in advance whether a new flu would be more or less deadly than existing human flu strains. But since it would be a completely new flu, only a relatively few poultry handlers would have any resistance. Without a vaccine -- and, so far, there isn't one -- a new flu would cross the globe like wildfire.

That's why experts are shaking their heads -- and crossing their fingers.

"We could be in deep kimchi," Marjorie P. Pollack, MD, tells WebMD. Pollack, an independent medical epidemiologist, is a moderator for the International Society for Infectious Diseases ProMed reporting system for disease outbreaks.

"If a person is infected by normal virus and by avian one, a more dangerous virus may evolve. This is the big fear," Arnon Shimshony, DVM, tells WebMD. Shimshony, an expert in infectious animal diseases, is a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a ProMed moderator.

 "These viruses are a flu subtype that hasn't ever before circulated in humans," CDC epidemiologist Lynnette Brammer, MPH, tells WebMD. "There is very little antibody in the population against these viruses. They would be prone to spread and cause a lot of illness. It is something that causes concern and something we are going to have to watch very carefully."

"We don't want this in humans or the world will be in deep, deep, trouble," Robert G. Webster, PhD, told WebMD last April. Webster is a virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, Tenn., and is director of the WHO Collaborating Center on the Ecology of Influenza Viruses in Lower Animals and Birds.

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