H5N1 and cats once again

The H5N1 in cats issue returns once again. We know felines, including big cats in zoos and domestic cats on city streets and backyards, can be infected with the virus. The assumption is they acquire it by eating infected birds, although we don't know the mode of transmission for sure. Now we have a story by the Bloomberg agency that a major study of feral cats is about to start in Indonesia:

For the cat study, scientists led by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization will examine feline habits and collect blood samples to test for exposure to the H5N1 virus. Disease trackers aim to collect data during the next three months, with preliminary results collated soon after, said John Weaver, a senior adviser with the agency in Jakarta.

Erasmus University may assist in helping determine how cats become infected, what damage the virus causes to their organs, whether it spreads among the felines and it has undergone any genetic changes, said Ron Fouchier, a virologist at Rotterdam, Netherlands-based Erasmus.

"We have yet to understand the epidemiology of the virus, how it crosses from different species," says Weaver. "If we miss the key component that these cats perhaps disseminate the disease, then we're not catching up with the game." (Bloomberg)

This is a study that was supposed to have started more than a year ago. It has gained urgency following a report that C.A. Nidom, an Indonesian scientist, found evidence of H5N1 infection in one fifth of feral cats around Indonesian poultry markets. That evidence was originally reported to be antibodies against H5N1 in cats' blood. This would indicate they had been infected at some time in the past and were now exhibiting immunity, and the FAO study will similalry be looking for antibodies, judging from the brief description. But the Bloomberg story now quotes Nidom as saying he actually detected active viral shedding in the cats:

"The prevalence of the virus is quite high" judging from preliminary tests on swabs of the cats' upper airways, C.A. Nidom, a scientist at Airlangga University in Surabaya, said in a telephone interview on Feb. 28. Nidom found H5N1 in 98 of 500 cats living near poultry markets in high-risk areas on the island of Java and in Lampung province on southern Sumatra island.

Both cats and birds have a special place as companion animals in Indonesian culture, so controlling them would be especially difficult even for an effective central government. But Indonesian government does not have effective central control. It is extremely decentralized. The only thing the central government seems able to do effectively is impede the progress of outside scientific investigation. Hence the year long delay in the FAO cat study and the apparent obstruction of a badly needed seroprevalence study.

Do cats usually get sick when infected with H5N1? There is evidence both ways. Do they infect each other or other animals including humans? We don't know. Are they a significant reservoir of the disease in Indonesia and elsewhere? We don't know that either.

There may be more than one way to skin a cat, but we don't seem able to find any of them.


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But all in all, the initiation of the cat study is very good news.

"There may be more than one way to skin a cat..."
Sorry but people who are crazy about cats find that offensive, even in jest. Good article otherwise.

Jon: No offense intended. A colloquialism from a dog person.

My friend Fardah at a certain Jakarta publication tells me that the shedding story is true and that there are lots of dead cats in Jakarta. He moved his family up country three months ago when he felt that even he at the publication wasnt getting the right story from the ministry. He said that he counted six cats on the way to work this a.m. which is about right now if I do my UTC correctly.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 08 Mar 2007 #permalink

revere: I knew no offense was intended. Thanks for responding.

By Jon Schultz (not verified) on 08 Mar 2007 #permalink

Revere: Has Nidom ever published any of this in a peer-reviewed journal? Or are we seeing "publication by newspaper?"

It would be a major big deal if it turns out that 1 in 5 cats wandering around Jakarta has live H5N1 virus in its saliva or nasal passages. But it's wrong for Nidom to make such an incendiary claim in an offhand interview. I sure won't buy it until I see some real data.

MRK: Did your friend mean he saw 6 dead cats on his way to work, or just 6 cats? Six dead ones sounds out of the ordinary. Maybe H5N1 is killing them. Or maybe somebody who is freaked out by Nidom's claim poisoned them. Either way, it's worth investigating, I'd think. Your friend's a journalist, right? Maybe he should check it out.

But seeing lots of dead cats doesn't quite jibe with Nidom's (apparent) claim that lots are moving around the markets with live H5N1. (The Bloomberg article doesn't make clear what the 98 out of 500 figure really applies to). But I thought H5N1 tended to kill cats that it infects in short order. Which wouldn't leave a lot left for Nidom to catch.

Rob: Allegedly he was preparing a paper with the help of collaborators in Japan, if I remember correctly. But we don't know anything solid about what he found yet. However scientists in Indonesia and FAO have both referred to his results as if they believed them.

Nidom says he found virus in 98 of 500 cats swabbed around markets in two main areas. His finding hasn't been published in any peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Insinuation was saw 6 dead cats on the way to work. No elaboration beyond that.

By M. Randolph Kruger (not verified) on 08 Mar 2007 #permalink

Doglover: Is that your reading of the Bloomberg article Revere quotes above, or do you have another source of info?

Help, Reveres, please....

I am trying to figure out HOW they test H5N1 survivors for prior exposure to the virus. I suppose this applies to cats, too.

I was looking into PCR testing, which is meant to be the grand model (but which falsely indicated a pertusis epidemic at Dartmouth last year when there was none).

Given all the debate about "seropositivism," with naysayers like Fumento playing up the vague & unconfirmed Vietnamese study, I was surprised to find that extensive googling doesn't get me much on the specific testing alternatives and their pros and cons.

For instance, what test would the US Naval researchers have done in Indonesia to determine how many seropositives are wandering around the archipelago? What test was used in Cambodia?

Are better tests expected to materialize?

This might make a good post topic, eh?

Thanks in advance!

Gratefully as ever,

By DeadAhead (not verified) on 08 Mar 2007 #permalink

The original report has the following:
"``The prevalence of the virus is quite high'' judging from preliminary tests on swabs of the cats' upper airways, C.A. Nidom, a scientist at Airlangga University in Surabaya, said in a telephone interview on Feb. 28. Nidom found H5N1 in 98 of 500 cats living near poultry markets in high-risk areas on the island of Java and in Lampung province on southern Sumatra island."
I spoke with the reporter to clarify.

Thanks, doglover. So we can be pretty sure that the Bloomberg reporter accurately reported what Nidom said. That's a step forward.

Everyone should take a breath, though. Many preliminary findings reported in the press don't pan out. And there are things about what Nidom is saying that don't quite fit with other data (such as they are).

If true, Nidom's assertion could have really big ramifications. But it would be a terrible shame to act on it in any way unless he's right (and see DeadAhead's post above). I'm looking for a peer-reviewd publication to lay it all out, with confirmation from other sources.

Does anybody know if there is an H5N1 vaccine is in the works for cats?
Could the Asian vaccines being used on chickens also be used on cats?

- try to vaccinate every mammal? Every rodent and carnivore and omnivore (and wild ducks)? They can't even make a vax for all the people, ssal.
FAO warned to keep pet cats indoors, a year ago.

What if the poultry vaccine policies have been part of the problem; driving worse strains? Fake vaxes sold, vaxes misused, not-very-good vaxes? (Besides the lack of "backyard biosecurity" and the poverty problems.)

By crfullmoon (not verified) on 09 Mar 2007 #permalink