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In the 1330s, the bubonic plague killed millions of people. Transmitted by rats, the disease originated from China. It later spread to Europe when merchants came back from their long voyage from China. The disease was also spread by fleas that when passed on to humans, became fatal. The bubonic plague continued for years and took the lives of millions of people.
Seven centuries later, a new disease is threatening to kill many if precautions are not made. This new disease is avian influenza, more commonly known as bird flu. Instead of rodents, birds transmit this disease to humans. Birds carry the bird flu virus in their intestines when they migrate for the winter. The virus, which does not affect the carriers, is deadly to those who come in contact with birds carrying the virus. When chickens, birds or geese come in contact with a bird carrying the virus through the birds saliva, nasal secretions or feces, they can become infected, fall ill and die in 48 hours.
Humans infected with bird flu have symptoms similar to symptoms of human influenza: fever, sore throat or muscle pain. Because of this similarity, it is easy to mistakenly diagnose an actual bird flu as human influenza. However, humans infected with avian flu would have worse symptoms eye infections and respiratory problems that could become life threatening.
Influenza in pandemic proportions is recorded to have happened three times during the 20th century. The Spanish Flu of 1918, the Asian Flu of 1957 and the Hong Kong Flu of 1968 claimed at least 20 million people worldwide.
Its important to mention that humans will not usually get bird flu unless they have been in close contact with infected poultry. Since the number of people that has been infected with the disease is still low and confined to a few children and adults, there is no serious cause of alarm yet. However, scientists and the health community are concerned that the disease, which usually affects poultry livestock, may evolve into something that will adversely affect humans. In some scenarios, the bird flu virus may become airborne or transmitted from one human to another.
The bird flu virus has many subtypes, but the subtype that is proving to be fatal to humans is called the H5N1. To date, about 70 people in Asia are confirmed to have died from H5N1.
When a bird flu outbreak occurs, the entire livestock has to be destroyed. This is similar to what happened during the mad cow disease outbreak when cattle had to be slaughtered and burned in order to prevent the disease from spreading to nearby cattle areas. The slaughtering and burning of cattle were done in many countries in the Asian region as well as in some parts of Eastern Europe and Russia.
Antiviral medications such as amantadine and rimantadine, which are usually given to treat influenza, do not work on the bird flu virus. Drugs are being developed and temporarily used on patients who appear to have succumbed to the avian flu disease. Although they appear to be responding to treatment and are showing improvements, further tests need to be done to ensure the effectivity of these new drugs.
Centuries ago, particularly during the bubonic plague, medical science was not yet developed to cope with an epidemic of pandemic proportions. However, with the advances in technology today, scientists will be able to study the avian flu disease further. By closely watching the migratory patterns of birds and understanding the disease, scientists may help prevent bird flu from becoming another global outbreak.
With the help of the internet, information can be disseminated quickly to thousands of people around the world and a reaction force can be immediately deployed to stop the disease from spreading any further.
It is important for people to realize that the bird flu virus is not merely one countrys problem. It is a serious global problem that affects all countries and all peoples.
Niall Cinneide publishes a bird flu news website, and an informational site with reports and articles about bird flu transmission at http://www.bird-flu-alert.info
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