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Wednesday, March 17, 2004

How scared should we be? Some bird flu facts at a glance


Staff writer

The following are answers to basic questions concerning bird flu:

Q. What is bird flu?

A. Avian influenza is a contagious disease. One form is known as highly pathogenic avian influenza, which is extremely contagious and fatal for birds.

Q. Are humans susceptible to bird flu infection?

A. According to the World Health Organization, human infection is "very rare" unless someone has very close contact with infected birds. Possible routes of infection include touching the organs or droppings of infected birds, and inhaling particles of their droppings.

Although 23 people in Vietnam and Thailand are confirmed to have died this year after contracting the disease, the Japanese government says the everyday chances of bird-to-human infection in this country are "extremely low," and are so far nonexistent.

Tokyo says cases of bird-to-human infection reported in other parts of Asia resulted from people's routine handling of live chickens, which is uncommon in Japan.

Q. Have any cases of human-to-human transmission been confirmed this time?

A. No. Thirty-three cases of bird-to-human infection had been reported worldwide as of March 15, though no evidence of human-to-human transmission has been confirmed thus far.

Q. Can people be infected with bird flu by eating the meat or eggs of infected chickens?

A. No such cases of infection have been reported worldwide. Eating raw eggs is considered to be safe, too, as far as bird flu infection is concerned, according to the government.

Q. If human infection is so rare, what are the health hazards facing people?

A. Bird-to-human infection could lead to creation of a new powerful killer influenza capable of being transmitted on a human-to-human basis.

When someone is infected with both avian and human influenza viruses simultaneously, the two viruses can exchange genes, which could create a new virus to which few people are naturally immune. Some 40 million to 50 million people died worldwide during a 1918-19 influenza pandemic that is believed to have stemmed from this kind of virus.

Q. What action should people who keep domestic birds take?

A. They don't need to worry as long as they keep wild birds away from their pet birds and keep them in a clean environment, the government says. Bird owners should also wash their hands and gargle after touching bird droppings.

Q. Cases of bird flu infection involving crows in Japan have been reported in recent weeks. Do they pose an immediate danger to humans?

A. Crow-to-human infection is again highly unlikely, unless someone has very close contact with crows.

To prevent the spread of bird-to-bird infection, however, the government says people should inform veterinarians or a public animal health office if they find a large number of crows or other wild birds dying for unknown reasons.

When disposing of a dead wild bird, people are advised to place the carcass in a plastic bag and tightly seal it -- but to refrain from touching the animal directly.

For general information on the disease in English, refer to the World Health Organization at: www.who.int/csr/disease/avian--influenza/avian--faqs/en/

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has set up a 24-hour Japanese helpline on bird flu, which can be reached at (03) 5320-7803.

Other useful information on bird flu here -- all in Japanese -- is available at the following sites:

The National Institute of Animal Health

http://niah.naro.affrc.go.jp/disease/poultry/tori_influenza.html

The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry

www.maff.go.jp/tori/

The Infectious Disease Surveillance Center

http://idsc.nih.go.jp/others/topics/flu/toriinf.html



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The Japan Times

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