Monday, February 21, 2005

Bird flu "Sword of Damocles"

Joseph Domenech, Director of Animal Health at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) likened bird flu to the sword that hung above the flatterer Damocles as he ate a sumptuous banquet. The sword was suspended by the most delicate horsehair. It did not improve Damocles' appetite, nor did the image seem to appeal to the assemblage of experts in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam this weekend discussing the threat of avian influenza. Interestingly, Domenech said the sword not only hung over public health but over rural economies. Considering that the FAO has advocated policies that themselves endanger rural economies by encouraging factory farming, it is hard to know what to make of this statement.

Domenech warned that countries that are claiming victory now over the disease are likely incorrect. There remain many unknowns, including the relative importance of commercial versus migratory bird movements internationally. But efforts to combat the disease cannot be relaxed.

That is exactly what Thailand seems to be doing, to the dismay of some in its own government. The Independent reports that the emergency plan proposed by Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister to cull ten million ducks and chickens and distribute face masks has been shot down on the grounds it would alarm the public.
Thailand's decision not to act, the personal initiative of its Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, marks the second time in two months that it has failed to take life-saving action in the face of a looming disaster. On Boxing Day, it was one of only two Indian Ocean countries to receive an immediate warning of the tsunami. But it failed to relay this to its coastal people or to tourists on the beaches until long after the wave hit. Experts suggested that the warning was delayed because it might damage tourism.
The contrast is with neighboring Vietnam, where 1.5 million birds have been culled or killed by disease since December and where raising poultry has been banned in the capital. These Draconian measures have slowed but not stopped the disease there.

The most disturbing news, however, comes from CDC's Dr. Nancy Cox, head of the influenza division, speaking at the AAAS meetings in Washington, DC:
"We found that for the 2003 virus, the virus had actually changed its receptive binding or its ability to bind to the receptors that are in human cells," she said.

"This shows that the virus can actually change in such a way, or has actually changed in the past in such a way, that might make it more easily transmitted from person to person." (BBC via ABC.Net [Australia])
The information that the hemaglutinin receptor binding site has altered is, as far as we know, completely new and ominous. We need to hear the details. CDC should make them available at once.