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Why Bird Flu is Such a Threat

Scientists who are warning us about a possible bird flu epidemic are comparing it with the 1918 Spanish flu influenza epidemic which killed somewhere between 40 and 100 million people worldwide during the 18 months it lasted. Researchers are analyzing that virus to try to figure out why it was so lethal. Other researchers have discovered a compound that gives broad protection against influenza viruses, including the deadly avian influenza. Bird flu may soon become one less thing for us to fear.

An analysis of mice infected with the reconstructed 1918 influenza virus has revealed that although the infection triggered a very strong immune system response, the response failed to protect the animals from severe lung disease and death.

Scientists infected one group of mice with the reconstructed 1918 influenza virus and a second group with ordinary human influenza. The mice infected with the 1918 virus showed a rapid and potent immune system response, yet the animals also developed severe lung disease and died. The animals infected with the more benign viruses did not develop an immune response that was as strong, and fewer of these animals died. Did the very strong immune system response contribute to their death or was the immune system too overwhelmed to fight the infection? Researcher Christopher F. Basler says, "When the body responds to infection, there are components of the immune system that can be beneficial and those that can be harmful."

Researcher John Kash says, "What we think is happening is that the host's inflammatory response is being highly activated by the virus, and that response is making the virus much more damaging to the host. The host's immune system may be overreacting and killing off too many cells, and that may be a key contributor to what makes this virus more [lethal]."

Opening a new front in the war against bird flu, other researchers have reported the discovery of a compound that gives broad protection against influenza viruses, including deadly avian influenza. It's a peptide?a small protein molecule?that blocks the influenza virus from attaching to and entering the cells of its host, preventing it from replicating and infecting more cells. This could lead to new drugs as well as potential vaccine. Right now, the only drug that fights bird flu is tamiflu, which is being stockpiled by Western nations.

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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