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The Race to Stop Bird Flu Before it Mutates

In Vietnam and Thailand, authorities are trying desperately to stop bird flu from spreading, before the virus becomes able to be passed from person to person and causes an epidemic much larger than SARS. Right now, it can only be caught directly from infected chickens. "If the virus continues to spread in chickens, it may adapt itself so it can grow in humans," says epidemiologist Arnold Monto. "If it is transmitted human to human, then we are concerned this is the start of the great pandemic."

Daniel Lovering quotes Mayo Clinic researcher Gregory Poland, who says, "The question everybody is asking is, 'Is this the progenitor to a pandemic?'" The virus HAS mutated?enough to make the flu vaccines we have now ineffective against it, but not enough to cause person-to-person transmission. The World Health Organization says, "Preliminary results indicate that these viruses are significantly different from other H5N1 (bird flu) strains isolated in Asia in the recent past, thus necessitating the development of a new prototype strain for use in vaccine manufacturing."

Vietnamese authorities admit that almost 900,000 infected chickens may have been sold to the public. Tini Tran quotes health minister Nguyen Van Thong as saying, "We have no idea whether these chickens were killed and eaten or slaughtered." For some reason, mostly children have died from the disease so far, perhaps because they played in dirt that was contaminated by chickens or because their immune systems are less developed.

SARS, which killed 800 people worldwide last year, started out as a disease caught only from civet cats. It became dangerous when it became contagious among people. Since it was a "new" virus, it was extremely catching, since human immune systems had never dealt with it before.

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