Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Does the sudden lull in the spread of H5N1 signal an outbreak in future?

Cattle Network - Earlier this year, bird flu panic was in full swing: The French feared for their foie gras, the Swiss locked their chickens indoors, and Americans enlisted prison inmates in Alaska to help spot infected wild birds.

With the feared H5N1 virus - previously confined to Southeast Asia - striking birds in places as diverse as Germany, Egypt, and Nigeria, it seemed inevitable that a flu pandemic would erupt.

Then the virus went quiet. Except for a steady stream of human cases from Indonesia, the current bird flu epicenter, the past year’s worries about a catastrophic global flu outbreak largely disappeared from the radar screen.

Part of the explanation may be seasonal. Bird flu tends to be most active in the colder months, as the virus survives longer at low temperatures. “Many of us are holding our breaths to see what happens in the winter, “said Dr. Malik Peiris, a microbiology professor at Hong Kong University.

“H5N1 spread very rapidly last year,“ Peiris notes, “so the question is, was that a one-off incident?“ Some experts suspect poultry vaccination has, paradoxically, complicated detection. Vaccination reduces the amount of virus circulating, but low levels of the virus may still be causing outbreaks - without the obvious signs of dying birds.

“It’s now harder to spot what’s happening with the flu in animals and humans,“ said Dr. Angus Nicoll, influenza director at the European Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. While the pandemic hasn’t materialized, experts say it’s too early to relax.

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