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In 1918 an influenza virus swept through the world, resulting in one of history’s most deadly epidemics. The influenza virus, referred to in scientific terms as H5N1, was found to be a bird flu – one that jumped directly to humans. The 1918 virus was highly infectious, and in recent weeks the fear that a transformation of one of the current bird flues could make it infectious in humans has prompted wide concern. This month’s article will look at the recent bird flu viruses that are sweeping Asia and consider whether or not this is a pending epidemic, a pandemic or just plain old hype.

Epidemic or pandemic

Taken from Merrian-Webster’s dictionary, an epidemic is a disease affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time. A pandemic is identical to an epidemic except that it occurs in a wide geographical area, rather than a region or community. The 1918 virus can easily be classified as a pandemic, in that some 50 million people in more than 20 different countries were killed. An article that appeared in the October 6, 2005, issue of The New York Times compared the 1918 virus to the one prevalent today. Since 1997, bird flocks in 11 countries have been decimated by flu outbreaks. So far nearly all the people infected — more than 100, including more than 60 who died — contracted the sickness directly from birds. However, there has been little transmission between people. The 1918 virus, in contrast, was highly infectious, and in recent weeks the fear that a transformation of one of the current bird flus could make it infectious in humans has prompted politicians of both major parties to scramble to demonstrate that they are taking the threat of an avian flu outbreak seriously.

“The bird flu viruses now prevalent share some of the crucial genetic changes that occurred in the 1918 flu, scientists said, but not all. The scientists suspect that with the 1918 flu, changes in just 25 to 30 out of about 4,400 amino acids in the viral proteins turned the virus into a killer. The new work also reveals that the 1918 virus acts much differently from ordinary human flu viruses. It infects cells deep in the lungs of mice and infects lung cells, like the cells lining air sacs, that normally would be impervious to flu. And while other human flu viruses do not kill mice, this one, like today’s bird flues, does.”

Until very recently, the 2005 version of the flu virus could only be classified as an epidemic in that it was confined to the Asian region nations. However, the New York Times reported that the 2005 version of the flu virus is literarily flocking westward. “Asian bird flu appeared to continue its westward spread this weekend with reports of two outbreaks in birds in Europe. Romania reported its first cases of avian influenza on Saturday, and Turkey today, both presumed to involve birds that migrate from Asia in autumn.”

To limit the spread of bird flu, the authorities took hundreds of birds from the farms and killed them and then declared a quarantine on the villages and six counties in the area.

A vaccine

The obvious simple solution is to create a vaccine that is capable of eliminating most, if not all, of the potential hazards. With this in mind, U.S. President George Bush asked leaders of the world’s top vaccine manufacturers — Chiron, GlaxoSmithKline and Merck — to come to the White House to discuss preparations for pandemic flu. Bush was told there is already a vaccine targeted to stop an epidemic; however, the vaccine does not protect against the bird flu. Instead, the goal of the vaccine is to try to prevent a human, who may be at risk for bird flu because of close contact with birds, from becoming infected with normal seasonal flu at the same time. Co-infection with the two types of virus is the most likely route for the bird flu virus to acquire the ability to pass readily from human to human, since conventional flu is highly contagious. In the same body, flu viruses often exchange genes, creating new, more deadly pathogens.

To date, most countries that encounter this virus take the sledgehammer approach. In Turkey, an outbreak of bird flu occurred among turkeys on a farm in the western part of the country, according to the Anatolia New Agency. The village was put under quarantine and all birds and street dogs were being killed as a precaution. In 1997 in Hong Kong’s tightly packed farms and markets, more than a million birds were killed in a day. In 2003, the disease spread to chicken farms in the Netherlands and in order to control that outbreak, 30 million birds were killed at a cost of 100 million euros, according to the Dutch Agriculture Ministry. Although the mass killing approach is effective in defeating the virus, it is extremely costly to the farmer, consumer and the government.

Until this year, scientists had believed that H5N1 flu moved from country to country because of domestic poultry trade. With this in mind, the European Union now bans poultry imports from Asia. However, cases of the deadly strain appeared during the summer of 2005 among migratory fowl in China’s western Qinghai Province. Given this discovery, scientists began to focus more on the possibility that wild birds were important in spreading the disease as well as domestic birds. Of course, this greatly complicates the situation of stamping out birds who might be carrying the virus.

When Our Lord Jesus Christ was asked about the latter days he specifically mentions that pestilence occurring in diverse places would be part of these times (Matt. 24:7). If H5N1 becomes a pandemic, we will be witnessing yet another sign of the days immediately prior to the return of our Lord Jesus Christ.

George Rayner

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