China is attempting to contain the spread of avian flu recently discovered in a flock of geese there. The discovery is a sign that public health officials say heightens the risk that the bird virus could lead to a worldwide human pandemic.
The type A avian flu strain originates in chickens, which can spread the virus to other poultry, the latest being geese in China. The virus has infected and killed pigs, cats and even zoo animals.
Humans have been largely spared the disease, which has caused less than 100 illnesses and deaths. But the concern among scientists is this small number of human fatalities could grow. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases finds the trend is disturbing.
"So, what are we really seeing now today? We've gone from an isolated situation in Hong Kong where there were 18 cases and six deaths that was a dead end, to now at least about nine or 10 countries in which there are 70 or 71 cases with 47 deaths. The area we're most concerned about now is in Vietnam most recently because of clusters of cases we're seeing there."
The virus has not spread to many humans, but scientists worry that this could change if the virus mutates and people begin infecting one another on a global scale. Public health officials predict a human avian flu pandemic could affect 20% of the world's population.
Experts believe upwards of 360 million people could die worldwide. Officials compare a possible avian flu epidemic to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic which killed 20 million people. What made the Spanish flu so deadly, and what threatens to sicken and kill so many people this time around, is an avian flu strain that experts say triggers what experts call a "cytokine storm."
Michael Osterholm is director of the Center of Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
"What happens with the cytokine storm is that the body's immune system overreacts, it sets off the immune system in a very robust way. And that in itself is what ends up attacking the host and causing the actual cell damage and ultimately the death."
Half of the people who died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic were between the ages of 18 and 40. What makes the current avian flu threat an urgent issue to address is a severe shortage of antiviral drugs and the lack of an effective vaccine.
Using current technology at a non-stop pace, Dr. Osterholm says only 330 million doses of vaccine can be produced per year, far short of the billions that are needed. Dr. Osterholm told the New England Journal of Medicine it may already be too late to head off the avian flu.
"We may already see the scenario unfold. If tonight, next week, next month, next year, the next few years, we see a pandemic emerge, we're just basically going to try to get through. Our hope is if we still can buy some more time, we need to have the international leadership, bold and decisive leadership that says we'll work with other developing world countries, we will work with private sector organizations, and we are as our goal going to set the standard that we want be able to make six-point-five billion doses of an effective vaccine in a very short period of time and we want to have a way to distribute it to the world."
So far, the World Health Organization has gotten about 50 countries to draw up preliminary plans to handle an avian flu pandemic, with most stockpiling antiviral drugs. But experts worry there are few prepared countries in Asia, where the avian flu epidemic is most likely to emerge.