Jan 29, 2015Bird Flu: Not Cause for Panic
President Bush has discussed our need to be prepared for it. The evening news has warned of its potentially devastating impact. The government is stockpiling vaccine to guard against it. It is H5N1 avian influenza, commonly known as the Asian bird flu, and scientists predict that it could reach the United States some time this fall or winter. As an athletic trainer, should you be alarmed?
The simple answer is no, at least not yet, says Bill Pierson, MS, DVM, PhD, Dip ACPV, Associate Professor of Avian Medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. Even if the Asian bird flu were to reach our shores, which could happen after American birds mix with Asian birds in Alaska during the summer then fly south for the winter, the immediate risk to humans is minimal.
“The virus’s preferred host is birds, not people,” Pierson says. “Basically the only people who have gotten sick have been in close, prolonged contact with sick or dying poultry.” The World Health Organization reports that since the H5N1 strain was first identified in humans in 1997, there have been fewer than 150 human deaths, mostly concentrated in Southeast Asia.
The problem, Pierson says, is that each human infection is another chance for the virus to mutate into a form that can be transmitted from person to person. And since H5N1 is highly pathogenic (it leads to severe illness), such a mutation could mean a worldwide epidemic. “We have flu pandemics about every 40 to 50 years,” Pierson explains. “And if you look at the cycle, the timing is right. So some people say it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, just a matter of when.“
A few in the athletic community have questioned whether geese and other birds congregating and leaving droppings on natural grass fields could pose a risk to athletes who use those fields. Pierson says it would be very difficult for a human to get the virus simply through such casual contact with birds or their droppings. “The chances of people in an athletic setting coming into contact with infectious material, especially in the quantity necessary to produce disease, are incredibly slim,” he says. “And even if someone were to come into contact with fecal material containing the virus, it is quite susceptible to soap and water followed by the application of a topical hand sanitizer.”