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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

Frequently Asked Questions About Bird Flu

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Can I Catch Bird Flu From Another Person?

As long as the bird flu virus doesn't change into a human flu virus, it won't spread far in people.

But sometimes -- after close personal contact -- a person who gets bird flu does infect another person.

In Indonesia in 2006, bird flu spread to eight members of one family. Seven of them died. It's not clear exactly how this happened. Family members likely had similar contacts with infected birds. They may also have shared genes that made them particularly susceptible to the virus. However, casual contact does not seem to be involved.

What About the Lab-Created Bird Flu Mutant?

During the fall of 2011, researchers from Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands made a stunning announcement. They had taught H5N1 the nasty trick of going airborne and spreading among ferrets.

Why ferrets? Nearly all human flu bugs spread easily among ferrets. They are commonly used in studies of human flu viruses.

"The virus is transmitted as efficiently as seasonal flu," lead researcher Ron Fouchier, PhD, told New Scientist magazine.

At the University of Wisconsin, a team led by virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka, PhD, DVM, also created an H5N1 mutant that spreads among mammals.

Both research teams were funded by the U.S. National Institute of Health. In a statement, the NIH says the research shows "that the H5N1 virus has greater potential than previously believed to gain a dangerous capacity to be transmitted among mammals, including perhaps humans."

The NIH funded the research because it felt there was a need for more information on how H5N1 might learn to spread among humans. The U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the study authors not to publish crucial information about the creation of the mutant viruses. The details will be made available only to qualified researchers.

But the studies remain extremely controversial. Some senior scientists have said the mutant viruses should never have been created. They note that while the mutant viruses are housed in state-of-the-art containment facilities, the risk of escape is not zero.

It's also not unprecedented. In 1977, an extinct H1N1 flu bug re-emerged along the Russia/China border. This so-called "Russian flu" led to widespread epidemics. Although officials denied it, many scientists believe the virus had escaped from a laboratory.


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