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.
Now that there’s a temporary reprieve in Gaza, our attention should shift to a series of attacks by various viruses in the Far East. In China, a potential outbreak (again!) of bird-flu is in the making with the death of a 27 year-old woman in China. Caused by the H5N1 virus, the last outbreak was in Asia in 2003 where 247 died. Find out more about the avian influenza virus( the proper name).
A little-known virus, Chikungunya (pronounced chikoon-goon-nya) has already made its entrance with Malaysia reporting 100 cases per week instead of the usual 100 cases per year. This disease is usually confused with dengue as they have similar presentations, although it follows a more benign course. Read more about it in my recent posting “This Thing called Chikungunya”.
Of immediate concern is the recent outbreak of dengue fever(pronounced den-gie), where the incidence has doubled in recent months in tropical and subtropical areas. In Malaysia, 8 deaths have been reported this month alone. Here’s a good write-up about dengue but I would like to highlight a few pointers:
- While the typical symptoms are high fever with chills, rashes, headaches and severe bodyaches in the absence of a runny nose, the latest outbreak has produced unusual symptoms like fits, yellowing of the eyes (jaundice) and kidney failure, all of which require treatment in hospital.
- Both Chikungunya and Dengue viruses are carried by the same mosquitoes called Aedes Aegypti. They are the ones with black-and-white stripes on their bodies. Don’t ask me why, but the females are the culprits and they have adapted themselves so that they don’t fly in your face or make a loud humming sound, preferring to come in low and bite in the ankles. These mosquitoes are attracted to perfume and dark clothing, so party animals, beware!
- Because the Aedes mosquito cannot travel far, it is generally accepted that the breeding ground is within the same compound or area, so one should get rid of pools of stagnant water which can collect in empty bottles, cans and plastic wrapping.
- You can confirm whether a fever is due to dengue via blood tests although they are not always accurate. Sometimes it is necessary to repeat the tests several times before they become positive. Nevertheless, diminishing numbers of a component of blood cells called platelets is suggestive of dengue.
- There is no treatment that can cure dengue. Like in most viruses, its up to one’s body resistance; and this can be enhanced by rest, adequate fluids and measures to reduce the fever.
At the end of the day, prevention is the mainstay. The way not to get dengue is to eliminate the Aedes mosquito if thats at all possible; failing which, to prevent the insect from biting you and passing you the virus..