The appearance of the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain in Turkey and Romania has increased fears in Europe over the spread of the disease. The virus has been linked to more than sixty human deaths in Asia.
Recent studies in the U.S. have established genetic links between bird flu viruses and the Spanish flu virus, the world’s last great pandemic that killed between 30 and 50 million people in 1918-19. In an effort to find out more about the virus U.S. scientists have managed to recreate it in laboratory mice.
The finding that the 1918 virus has some common properties with the bird flu virus that has now reached Europe raises the possibility that it could mutate into a more deadly form. So far there’s no evidence that human to human contact can spread the infection. The Asian deaths were all closely linked to persons who had had close contact with infected birds.
However, as flu viruses are known to mutate rapidly, the possibility that a strain could evolve that would not only be fatal to humans, but could also be spread directly between individuals, raises greater fears of a world wide pandemic.
Were that to happen, it could precipitate a global health crisis that some anaysts say could cause as many as 150 million deaths. Although western societies may be prepared for the threat, conditions in many parts of the world resemble those that existed in 1918. The Spanish flu (so-called because it caused a great number of deaths – estimated at 8 million – in Spain) spread rapidly around the globe. Recent studies have traced the first appearance of the disease to soldiers returning from World War I at Camp Funston in Kansas on March 11, 1918.
In addition to its rapid spread, the Spanish flu caused as many deaths among young, healthy individuals as it did among children, the elderly and the sick. Scientists have speculated that the increased number of deaths in young persons may have been due to an especially violent reaction from the body’s immune system in its efforts to fight off the disease. This virulent reaction may explain how an individual, who was perfectly healthy in the morning, could fall sick in the afternoon and die by nightfall.
It’s estimated that one-fifth of the world’s population, roughly 400 million people at the time, eventually contracted the Spanish flu by April of 1919, when it suddenly disappeared.
Most countries are, however, much better prepared this time around. Not only is there a greater understanding of how viruses such as H5N1, mutate and spread, but also anti-viral drugs and greater access to health care – at least in developed countries – would probably greatly reduce the number of deaths.
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