Thursday, August 18, 2005

Crossing the threshold to Europe

The bird flu situation in Russia continues to deteriorate, despite optimistic (and fatuous) claims by WHO's representative in St. Petersburg that the epidemic among poultry would be over in 10 - 15 days. The originally reported focus in Siberia has spread south and westward and this week reached the Urals, the traditional line separating Asian from the more densely populated European Russia. At the start of the week the westernmost region known to be infected was in Chelyabinsk, about 1000 km (600 miles) from the initial detection in Novosibirsk (Reuters), on the very doorstep of Europe:
Russia’s public health chief warned in a letter to regional health officials that the virus — believed to be transmitted by migratory wild birds — could nonetheless reach the Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions this autumn.

And in spring next year, bird flu could spread “to the entire European part of Russia,” Gennady Onishchenko wrote. A separate order by Onishchenko issued on Aug. 11 and made public Monday called for accelerated efforts to combat the spread of the outbreak.

He also asked the Interior Ministry to provide personnel to help quarantine affected areas and instructed the Health Ministry’s regional offices to compile lists of people and their families who have come into contact with infected birds. (Mosnews)
This last instruction is particularly revealing in the light of repeated statements that there have been no human cases. Clearly the correct statement (accepting it at face value) is that there are no known cases, but that the ability to detect cases is poor.

And yesterday came word that apparently the threshold has been crossed. Via ProMed:
Russian health workers have found mass bird deaths in a region to the west of the Ural mountains, in what could become the 1st case of the deadly bird flu virus spreading to Europe, officials said on Wednesday [17 Aug 2005].

The Russian state health watchdog, in a statement posted on its Web site, said the bird deaths occurred on a farm in the Caspian region of Kalmykia, 2000 km (1200 miles) from the region where Russia's 1st flu outbreak was reported. It was unclear whether bird flu had caused those deaths.

"This case is being investigated," the Federal Consumers' Rights and Welfare Watchdog said, adding that no cases among humans had been confirmed in Russia.

Kalmykia is 1800 km south of Moscow and is the only Buddhist region in Europe.
These reports are as yet unconfirmed by laboratory diagnosis. But I doubt anyone is expecting good news on that score.

The wide geographic area with endemic poultry infection is a sure recipe for further genetic changes of unknown effect in this rapidly mutating virus. Even if we assume it never mutates to allow efficient human to human transmission (and we have no basis for assuming such an optimistic scenario), the virus is capable of doing enormous economic and ecological damage to wild bird and domestic poultry populations. Yet despite all that has happened, the UN continues to put a good face on things:
The scenario of a bird flu outbreak in Europe would be very different from that in Asia, said Juan Lubroth, an animal health expert with the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, one of the agencies responsible for tracking the virus.

It would not only be detected more quickly, he said, but people don't live in close quarters with animals, as they do in much of southeast Asia.

The European poultry industry also is better able to shelter its birds from contact with the wild ducks blamed for the disease's spread. Italy and the Netherlands have previously stamped out outbreaks of bird flu.

Also, experts noted the health care system is better able to deal with human exposure to bird flu and other animal-produced diseases.

"Theoretically, because it's going to be stopped in its tracks, it's not going to infect humans because of the quick detection, and therefore it would have less of a chance to become adapted to humans," Lubroth said. (AP via ABC News)
All I can say is, these guys must be living in some weird, parallel universe.

What to do? Hang onto your hats for a wild ride and cross your fingers for luck? That seems to be US government policy. Other things to worry about, you know.