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Killer Flu on the Way

Killer flu swept through the world 3 times in the last century, and it almost happened again in 1997. Now experts say a killer virus strain my be making its way to our shores from Hong Kong again.

The Spanish flu of 1918 killed millions of people. Scientists managed to stop the spread of the virulent 1997 Hong Kong virus, but a new report show that a similar virus reappeared in Hong Kong in 2001, just in time to make it over here in 2002.

"We don't want this in humans or the world will be in deep, deep trouble," says Dr. Robert G. Webster of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. "What will you do if one of these gets away?...It is going to happen sooner or later, and authorities are not stockpiling effective drugs. We have had two years of very mild flu, and now these drugs are in very short supply. If one of these viruses gets away, we are in for trouble."

Genetic components of an avian flu strain that jumped the species to infect people in 1997 are still infecting chickens in Hong Kong. The 1997 virus killed six of every 18 people it infected. Authorities had all of the city's 3 million chickens slaughtered, in an attempt to wipe out the virus, and this stopped the outbreak before the virus could jump to humans. It was the first time a human action was able to prevent a worldwide epidemic.

A different flu strain infected chickens again in 2001, although no cases of human infection were reported. But a genetic analysis of the two strains reveals they are similar. Lab mice exposed to some of these viruses quickly developed brain infections and died. Webster says, "It replicates like crazy and goes straight to the brain."

Webster is director of the World Health Organization collaborating center on influenza viruses in lower animals and birds. "This time, this virus has picked up a whole set of new internal genes," Webster says. "?The key question is, 'What is the potential in humans?' Can you afford to let the experiment happen??If this virus mates with a virus that allows it to spread from human to human, it would be of great worry to me."

Researchers think this new virus became especially virulent when it picked up genes from a virus that infects geese. Hong Kong authorities initiated measures to prevent the transfer of flu viruses between different species. Ducks, geese and quail are kept separate from chickens and all markets are emptied and cleaned on the same day of the month.

Mainland China is still denying they have a problem, according to David L. Saurez, of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture?s Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory. He says, "It is there. So obviously they are unable or unwilling to control it. It is a huge risk."

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