- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 27, 2005

Where does avian flu come from?

First discovered among European birds in the early 1900s, avian flu affects many bird species and appears in dozens of different varieties.

Five strains are known to cause disease in humans. All of them are the result of infection by viruses — tiny packets of genetic material so small that 1 million viruses could sit on the end of a human hair.

What is so worrying about avian flu?

The current concern focuses on a type known as H5N1, first discovered in terns in 1961. It is astonishingly lethal in chickens and extremely contagious: Just 1 gram of fecal material can infect 40 million other birds.

In 1997, H5N1 proved capable of infecting humans near chickens and has proved fatal in about half of all cases, a strikingly high fatality rate.

What are the symptoms of the disease?

In chickens, H5N1 is so lethal that the principal symptom is death. In humans, it produces the classic symptoms of influenza: fever, cough, sore throat and aching muscles. Breathing difficulties and pneumonia-like symptoms can lead to death within days.

Can it be caught by eating chicken?

Cooked chicken is understood to be entirely safe. All the human cases so far have been traced to contact either with infected chickens directly or with matter that has come into contact with them. Health officials advise travelers to Asia to avoid poultry markets and farms.

Is there a cure?

An anti-viral drug known as oseltamivir, marketed by Roche as Tamiflu, appears to relieve symptoms and provide some protection. Britain’s Department of Health is stockpiling supplies sufficient to treat 15 million people.

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