Feb 18 - 24, 2008

LAHORE: H5N1, the infective agent for the widely discussed disease, avian influenza (AI), has not attained the ability of easy human-to-human transmission which is clearly evident from the confirmation of bird flu in only one human being in the population of over 160 million in Pakistan during the last five years of vigilant surveillance. It is being feared that the virus if mutates, it can attain the ability of the inter-species transfer.

These views were expressed by Chairman Pakistan Medical Society, Dr Masood Akhtar Sheikh while talking to PAGE. Dr Masood said that bird flu is an avian specific influenza virus and is present in the wild water fowls, ducks and wild crows for many centuries in a silent form. These, being the carriers, may harbor the virus without any evidence of the symptomatic disease. "The disease may be shown in the poultry flocks in which the severe form of the disease becomes symptomatic, may result in the death of the birds in a short span of time. It was being claimed that the birds were the dead ends for the virus and this virus was genetically different from the human influenza virus. Though there are a few similarities between human influenza virus and the avian influenza virus,"" he said adding that they are prevalent in their respective species and are relatively less harmful for their own.

"Mutation is a natural process and takes place in many microbial over centuries. This could have happened in many other species as well. It has, therefore, been presumed that H5N1 could also mutate in a process through which the virus is trying to locate another host for its survival but, it may take a few decades,"" he said.

Masood said: "It is also feared that this H5N1 virus is in a process of mutation and, if substantially mutated, it may acquire the ability of easy inter-species transfer. The fear has further been strengthened by assuming that it may also result in an increase in human to human transmission."

He said that it is further presumed that the exchange of genetic material, between the H5N1, and other human influenza virus, may result in genetically different virus, that may attain the ability of easy human-to-human transmission but at the cost of its virulence to the level of human influenza virus which is virtually harmless to the human beings with almost no mortality due to the resultant hybrid form the new AI virus. This feared mutation will be beneficial in long terms, he added.

Dr Masood added that H5N1 though contagious for the birds, it is very difficult to have the inter-species transfer which has been shown by any one human case of bird flu in the workers who are in thousands associated with the over 25,000 poultry farms and thousands of retailers in this industry, showing a rate that is not even measurable.

The fried eggs, French toasts, chicken "shami" and chicken "kababs", made by properly cooked chicken and eggs are incapable of causing H5N1 infection in human beings. People should avoid using raw eggs, taking raw eggs mixed with milk or applying in raw eggs to the scalp for the nourishment of their hair, if obtained from the bird flu affected poultry, he added.

Talking about the risk, Dr Sheikh said: out of 160 million people, only those associated with the poultry farms, retailers, feed production, are at risk, if they are not taking proper bio-protective measures like using gowns, gloves or goggles and proper boots while working in bird flu-affected farms.