The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control haswarned that the outbreak of bird flu in Asia is the singlebiggest threat facing the world today. Right now, bird flucan only be caught directly from infected birds?usuallychickens?but there are signs that the virus is evolving andmay soon be able to be passed from person to person. If thathappens, we could have an epidemic to rival the 1918influenza pandemic, which killed millions of people aroundthe world.
Researchers don't know for sure that the H5N1 strain of birdflu will evolve into a form that can be passed from personto person. Right now, bird flu has a fatality rate of about75%, so if this form of flu spreads around the world, itcould be an international health disaster.
The longer the bird flu virus is around people, the greaterthe risk s it will mutate and "learn" how to defeat thehuman immune system. A vaccine has not yet been developedfor bird flu, but researchers are working overtime to createone. The prescription medicine Tamiflu, manufactured byRoche, is effective against avian flu, but if an epidemicbegins, Tamiflu stocks will be quickly depleted and thecompany may not be able to manufacture enough of the drug tofill worldwide demand. As with AIDS drugs, we will seepatients in rich countries being treated, while those inthird world countries suffer and die.
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