Despite worldwide attention to avian influenza, the threat of pandemic flu outbreak has not abated, the head of the World Health Organization's Global Influenza Program told health officials this week, according to the Associated Press.
Despite being primarily a wildlife disease, the H5N1 strain, or so-called bird flu, has killed 382 people since 2003. This year, victims have been documented in Indonesia, China, Vietnam, Pakistan and Egypt. The most recent death came in late April, when a three-year-old died in Indonesia, where about 45% of bird flu deaths have occurred.
Given the proximity of people to flocks of domestic birds, other domestic animals and wild animals sold in food markets, the chance that the virus could mutate into a form that would easily spread from person to person is still a strong possibility. Given the rate of worldwide travel, any virulent disease carried by people would likely spread quickly from continent to continent.
Most infections today jump from bird to human, and most 63% are deadly. A pandemic would likely kill millions. The H5N1 strain of bird flu, though, is only the most likely and best-known virus that might cause a pandemic.
In the United States, local health departments are devising plans and starting to inoculate key decision-makers and emergency responders with the vaccine that is in limited supply.
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