The first half of 2006 is coming to an end. So far it was the world’s worst for avian influenza, as the disease spread to birds across Asia, Europe and Africa, with new human cases being reported every couple of days.
Since January, at least 54 people have died from the H5N1 avian influenza strain in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq and Turkey, according to the World Health Organization. That compares with 19 fatalities in Vietnam and Cambodia in the first six months of 2005. Human cases create opportunity for the virus to mutate into a lethal pandemic form.
A severe winter in Russia and the Caucasus area at the end of last year pushed migratory birds south and westward, the FAO said. By February, initial outbreaks in wild birds and poultry were reported in Iraq, Nigeria, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Greece, Italy, Azerbaijan, Iran, Germany, India, Egypt, Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Slovakia, Switzerland and Niger.
The following month, Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro, Pakistan, Albania, Poland, Georgia, Cameroon, Myanmar, Denmark, Sweden, Israel, Afghanistan, Jordan and the Czech Republic reported initial outbreaks. They were joined by Burkina Faso, Palestine Authority, U.K., Sudan and Ivory Coast in April and Djibouti in May.
In contrast, no initial outbreaks were reported in the first half of last year. In the first half of 2004, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Laos, Indonesia and China reported H5N1 for the first time. (Bloomberg)
Conditions for a possible pandemic continue to ripen. The virus is geographically distributed in ever new and different environmental niches, has produced the largest cluster of human cases to date, with solid evidence of human to human to human transmission, and has infected other mammalian species in which to experiment with new lifestyles and genetic endowments.
This is the first time in history the world has been able to watch what might be an evolving influenza pandemic, so we don’t know what we are looking at. So far what we see is both frightening and fascinating — the horrible fascination of watching a trainwreck in slow motion.