Flu beyond the coop

Flu beyond the coop McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 13, 2006 - Volume 38 Number 15
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Flu beyond the coop

Between caution and alarm… what McGill experts tell us about Avian Flu

Caption follows
Counting your flus before they’re hatched.

During the months leading up to last winter's flu season, dire predictions of an avian flu pandemic swirled through the media. Though those early predictions may have seemed alarmist, studies still warn that avian deaths could exceed 300 million and worst-case financial losses might top $US 4 trillion, the equivalent of Japan's entire economic output. And even though none of the 193 human cases — including 109 deaths — of avian influenza virus reported by the World Health Organization was found in North America, the virus known by the antigenic moniker H5N1 is still fingered as the agent most likely to generate the next deadly human flu outbreak.

How concerned are McGill's avian flu experts about H5N1? David Bird, an avian ecologist with a keen interest in bird flu and director of the Avian Science and Conservation Centre on McGill's Macdonald campus, is cautious. "I think it's only a matter of time before H5N1 shows up in North America, but there's a big difference between educating people and frightening them," he said, insisting that feeding wild ducks and eating chicken are pretty much risk-free activities. Bird, also a professor of wildlife biology, added that despite the devastation just one case can have on the poultry industry, the threat to wild flocks is minimal. "Wild birds have faced influenza for eons," he pointed out. "There can be massive die-offs but the bird populations always bounce back."

Brian Ward, an expert on viruses and vaccines, is chief of McGill's Division of Infectious Diseases and associate director of the Centre for Tropical Diseases at the MUHC. Ward has grown more rather than less apprehensive about bird flu over time. "I'm worried, because we're overdue," Ward explained, pointing out the last major human flu pandemic was almost 40 years ago, adding that if he could be sure that all existing influenza virus subtypes were already known, he might relax.

Last year, researchers managed to resurrect the devastating Spanish flu virus from the remains of a Bering Strait Innu woman. The findings turned medicine's conventional wisdom on its ear. "This was not a human virus that had borrowed a gene or two" from an avian strain. "It was an avian virus," a discovery that flew in the face of Ward's two-decades-long understanding of the field.

Ward is confident that if H5N1 doesn't trigger the next human pandemic, everything being done to prepare for one will still be useful. In addition to public health planning, preparations have included "developing new vaccine manufacturing strategies to allow us to move rapidly from production to testing and use in the field."

Meanwhile, Ward is optimistic. H5N1, he said, "has been around for almost a decade and doesn't jump easily" from bird to human. But, he cautioned, "My concern would go through the roof at the first report of human-to-human transmission." If that happened, Ward said, "one part of me would be tempted to move my kids up north to Cree territory, to live in a tent for six months or so."

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