Several weeks ago I posted an overview of the potential threat that the avian flu in Southeast Asia posed to the world population and economy. This post was based on information and interviews I’d gathered from credible sources as part of my regular job. Since this flu is genetically very similar to the deadly 1918 Spanish flu, my report included estimates by the Department of Health and Human Services of 1.7 million deaths in the U.S. alone if avian flu infected and killed the same percentages of Americans as the 1918 pandemic.
At the time of that post, the avian flu virus still needed an autogenic mutation that would allow it to be passed from human to human. There are now reports that this critical mutation may have taken place and the virus has broken out in seven clusters in and around Haiphong in northern Vietnam. You can read “Has the Next Flu Pandemic Started?” along with other updates at this blog, Avian Flu – What We Need to Know, which is devoted to aggregating reports on this virus.
By the way, the magazine article I was editing and referenced in my original post appeared in the April 15 issue of Risk & Insurance magazine and is reprinted in its entirety here. It includes a table showing projected deaths by age group in the U.S. One of the co-authors of that story, Dr. Michael Osterholm (director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy and a professor of public health at the University of Minnesota), also wrote an article last week for the New England Journal of Medicine describing the critical gaps in our global ability to contain such an outbreak. This article is also on the avian flu site and can be read here.
Keep in mind that the concerns of influenza experts are based on the strong similarities of the avian flu to the 1918 strain and the current logistical handicaps we would face in the event of an outbreak. Projections are still just projections, and the severity of the avian flu strain, if it has mutated, may be less depending on whatever other transformations also may have occurred in the last mutation. As the story in the second link above indicates, those who have been infected so far by presumed human-to-human contact have all recovered, so the strain may not be as lethal as its animal-to-human transmission variant.
That story also points out, however, that the 1918 pandemic also began with relatively mild cases in the spring, but by fall had envolved into a killer. If this topic interests you, I suggest you bookmark the Avian Flu blog.