Fears of a fresh outbreak of bird flu this year have been raised by the United Nations, after an increase in the number of deaths and, crucially, the emergence of a new, mutated strain of the disease.
Although in six countries – Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam – it is known to be endemic (present all the time albeit in smaller numbers), at least eight people have died of bird flu in Cambodia this year alone. Of note – the emergence of a new, mutated strain of the disease for which the existing vaccines do not work.
Just as a reminder, the H5N1 bird flu virus spread across Asia in the last few years, killing millions of fowl and several hundred people but never gained genes to spread easily among humans. This is unlike the swine flu virus (H1N1) which readily affects humans and spread rapidly in 2008 from Mexico to the US and beyond, killing thousands.
While it is expected that the the new Avian mutant virus may not be so transmissible to humans, it is difficult how dangerous it potentially is. Nevertheless, it is of sufficient concern for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to issue a warning urging stiffer surveillance measures to prevent the disease spreading to new areas, particularly when bird migration can take the virus to countries which have never got the illness.
The threat of catching the disease aside, the economic impact of another outbreak can be quite tremendous, considering that in 2008, some 400 million domestic poultry were slaughtered and the disease was said to have cost the world’s economies US $20bn.