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How Dangerous is Bird Flu to Humans?

It's almost inevitable that the Asian bird flu virus will eventually mutate into a form that humans can pass to one another. When that happens, it will spread rapidly around the world, just as SARS did. So we need to know: Just how dangerous is bird flu to humans?

Emma Ross writes in the Associated Press that scientists at World Health Organization scientists are mixing the bird flu virus, which right now can only be caught by humans who have direct contact with infected birds, with human flu virus, in order to create the type of virus that might eventually arise. They plan to test it on primates to see how dangerous it is. Researcher Klaus Stohr says, "What we want to do is reduce surprises. Every surprise will cost lives. We still have the time here to do the research. We don't have much time, but the pandemic isn't there yet.

"It's not a virus which we have been able to get rid of. It comes back, comes back and these outbreaks are getting bigger and bigger," he says. "This is the virus which everyone would bet their money on."

Stohr says, ?We don't know whether this virus is spreading in the entire body or whether it's just in the lungs." He will test two different drugs on the infected animals, and says, "Tamiflu reaches therapeutic levels in many tissues. Relenza does not. It is only in the lung. If this virus gets into the brain, the liver and other parts of the body, then Relenza would be out. We could only use Tamiflu."

Among the mysteries researchers want to solve are: What is the incubation period, how long will people remain infectious, when will antibodies be detectable (so the disease can be identified), when will fevers start and end, how likely will survival be and can the virus can spread through urine or feces as well as saliva. These tests will help governments decide whether to close schools and restrict travel when the human epidemic begins.

Stohr says, "We are getting ammunition. We don't want to go into battle without having a reconnaissance mission. We don't want to go into a pandemic without knowing what the enemy is, and that's what this is all about."

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