Bird flu has returned in Asia with a reported case in Hong Kong. A 59-year-old woman in the city contracted H5N1 avian influenza — the first confirmed case in Hong Kong since 2003. It’s not clear how she became sick. She traveled to China from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1, visiting several cities — and according to the Hong Kong government, she spent time at a live poultry market in mainland China and ate chicken while she was there. She started showing flu symptoms the day after she returned to Hong Kong, and was admitted to the hospital with a high fever on Nov. 14, and she’s in serious condition. Any reference to mainland China and H5N1 always begs the question: Why do we always hear about Chinese H5N1 after it has managed to spread outside of the country?

Backyard Culling
Asian countries have been back on alert since September when the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) issued an ominous alert, noting that reports of bird die-offs had come in from a record number of countries.

Typically, only a handful of countries have confirmed bird die-offs due to H5N1 by mid-September, and less than a dozen identified such avian events during all 12 months of 2009. But by September 14th, the FAO had confirmed avian die-offs in sixteen countries, for a total of 390 H5N1 outbreaks. (Remember that these numbers do NOT include Indonesia, which continues to resist sharing information about what is thought to be the world’s largest cycle of H5N1 infection, involving not only a broad range of bird species and domestic poultry, but also the bulk of the world’s human cases and recently confirmed pig infections.)

These recent outbreaks no doubt caused the Philippines’ inter-agency council on bird flu to be reactivated after the first confirmed case of avian influenza since 2003 was reported in Hong Kong, an official of the Department of Health (DOH) announced on November 19, 2010. The council was created to observe the spread of avian influenza in some parts of the world a few years ago and to formulate strategies to keep it at bay.

Airport Thermal Screening
Thermal scanners procured by the DOH last year at the height of the Influenza A(H1N1) pandemic would be used again to screen incoming international travelers for fever. The DOH’s Bureau of Quarantine may also re-implement the quarantine procedures introduced during the H1N1 pandemic, where inbound passengers found to have fever would be isolated from other travelers and airport personnel. Authorities at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) are now carefully watching incoming passengers, especially those from Hong Kong.

How worried should we be? As a virus, H5N1 is a lot deadlier than the H1N1 swine flu that triggered the flu pandemic of 2009-10. Of the 507 human cases of H5N1 that have been confirmed by WHO, 302 have died. At the same time, what’s kept H5N1 from creating its own, far deadlier pandemic is the fact that the virus doesn’t seem to spread easily between human beings. With the just a few exceptions, nearly every person who has contracted H5N1 has done so directly from a sick bird. That’s part of the reason why the disease has only struck in Asia and parts of the Middle East and Africa, where live poultry markets are common and where there is often little separation between a backyard chicken farmer and his birds.

What’s the smart company or person to do?  As we know with influenza, anything is possible, at any time. Stay tuned!

Council on Foreign Relations

Philippine Times