No Bird Flu Pandemic -- Yet
CDC 'Extremely Concerned,' but Killer Flu Still Not Spreading Among Humans
"The isolation of virus from a rectal specimen is a major source of concern, since it highlights a potential route of human-to-human transmission, especially in combination with crowded living conditions and diarrhea," Jenno D. de Jong, MD, and colleagues wrote.
The leader of this study, Jeremy Farrar, MD, PhD, is clearly worried.
"The great concern is there is an incredibly virulent avian flu that shows the ability to jump to humans," Farrar told WebMD in a December 2004 interview. "And when it gets to humans, it is clearly a very nasty disease with a high mortality rate."
In a recent assessment of the threat posed by a bird flu pandemic, the World Health Organization noted that this is the first time in history people have had any warning that a killer flu might be on the way.
"A pandemic may be imminent," writes WHO director-general Lee Jong-wook, MD. "This time, the world has an opportunity to defend itself against a virus with pandemic potential before it strikes."
CDC and WHO researchers already have identified viruses from which they can make a bird flu vaccine. Candidate vaccines are scheduled for testing at the National Institutes of Health. And Uyeki says that Vietnam is testing its own vaccine in animal studies.
It's not yet clear whether these experimental vaccines are safe or whether they will elicit immune responses that protect against H5N1 flu viruses in humans. Should an H5N1 vaccine be safe and effective, there's still the issue of producing enough vaccine for U.S. and world demand. And, of course, vaccine makers will have to keep up with the notorious ability of flu viruses to change their genetic makeup.
The bird flu is, unfortunately, resistant to one kind of flu drug. It's sensitive to Tamiflu -- but supplies are short.
"Even in a scenario where we have a couple of months to plan for a pandemic, the answer is no, there are not enough antiviral drugs available for treatment or [prevention of infection] during a pandemic situation -- even in the U.S., let alone the rest of the world," Uyeki says. "Other governments besides the U.S. are trying to stockpile it. Currently there is an insufficient supply. … What are needed are not only more availability and more production, but we need other kinds of antivirals as well."