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Bird Flu Spread Among Humans Would Be Deadly

Human Cases Mount, but Still No Giant Leap to Mankind
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Why Experts Worry About Bird Flu continued...

Daniel S. Shapiro, MD, co-author of an editorial accompanying Hien's study, says the ability of the H5N1 virus to jump from birds to cats is ominous. He is director of the clinical microbiology labs at Boston Medical Center and an associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine.

Shapiro tells WebMD that what we know about bird flu so far increases our wariness that it could enter an animal population such as pigs, and offers the potential to eventually infect humans.

However, Shapiro says he thinks Americans should worry more about drunken drivers than the odds-off threat of a human version of bird flu. But he does express concern over what might happen if the bird flu spread through U.S. livestock. The H5N1 bird flu hasn't spread to the U.S. But this week, the USDA announced that there has been an outbreak of a different version of bird flu among poultry near San Antonio.

A few weeks ago, the Southeastern Center for Emerging Biologic Threats and Emory University held a meeting on pandemic influenza. The co-chair of that meeting was Jeffrey Koplan, MD, MPH, former CDC director and longtime CDC disease detective, now vice president for academic health affairs at Emory University in Atlanta.

At that meeting, flu experts agreed that a human version of the H5N1 bird flu would be a global disaster.

"I would say at this point this needs to be at the top of our priority list," Koplan said at the end of the meeting. "This is something that will occur, and when it does it will be devastating. The public will say, 'Why didn't you do something about it?' only after it occurs. This is a major health problem. This needs to be placed at the forefront of activity now. If we wait until after the fact, we will pay a price for it."

One thing that is being done: A frantic search for a bird flu vaccine. As part of a World Health Organization effort, the CDC is working overtime to develop safe vaccine strains of H5, H7, and H9 bird flu viruses. However, it will be many months -- at the very least -- before these potential vaccines are ready for human tests.

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