An Iowa scientist says we do need to worry about the bird flu that’s posing a public-health problem in parts of Asia. Doctor Gregory Gray, Director of the “Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases” at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health, says the avian flu is dangerous in part because it’s new.He says it’s most dangerous when a virus from another species, like the bird flu, not only jumps from poultry to humans — but then becomes transmissible from person to person. If that happens, he says, “we’re in a lot of trouble.” Asked to compare it with another new disease, West Nile Virus, Dr. Gray admits the mosquito-borne disease that swept into Iowa just a few years ago did make a lot of people sick. But influenza has the potential to cause many times the “morbidity” in public-health terms — to make many more sick, since it’s so easily spread from human to human. Dr. Gray says while this influenza virus seems to have jumped from birds to humans in Asia, it won’t be limited to that part of the world very long. He admits it’s possible it could be limited to that region, but says from the look on things the last couple years, this particular virus continues to spread to humans and other species, is very virulent, and has lots of opportunities to enter the U.S. He says many public-health officials, legislators and others are very concerned, and he thinks, rightfully so. Iowa State University veterinarian Alex Ramirez says bird flu itself isn’t new. Avian influenza has been around for some time, he says, but this strain has the ability to change and mutate faster than some other viruses. Ramirez says that means it has the potential to cross the “species barrier” and to become much more deadly. But for now, he says it’s appeared among humans only in Asian communities with an agricultural lifestyle. A person with only casual contact has only a very small chance of contact, he says. It’s the people who work daily with animals who are likely to be exposed. Still, preparations are being made to counter the disease if it spreads into the general population. In the Quad Cities, Amy Thorsen in the Scott County Health Department is on the lookout for it. Thorsen says they’ve laid out plans to hold mass vaccination and treatment clinics if any kind of widespread disease outbreak appears and they’d need to quickly give a large number of people medication. She points out the U.S. government carefully tracked SARS, and it didn’t become a serious public-health threat in this country. It’s being monitored very closely and she says so far while it’s spread from birds to humans, there’s been no human-to-human spread that would concern the scientists. Thorsen says in Iowa we see a thousand people a year die of “the regular flu,” five-thousand die each year from cancer and six-thousand from heart disease annually in Iowa, so those are the real concerns we have right now.
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