Bird flu scare called ‘overblown’

Veterinary experts are cautioning that exaggerated media and government reports of a deadly influenza pandemic triggered by the avian flu are causing needless public hysteria.

“We are very unlikely to get an avian flu strain that is infectious to humans,” said Daniel Perez, an assistant professor at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. “The chances of getting hit by avian influenza from wild birds is the same as getting hit by a lightning bolt.”

Perez, along with three other veterinary experts, said widespread prevention and detection methods are still integral in preventing an outbreak of the avian flu strain, also known as H5N1, which is currently infecting birds in Asia and Europe.

They spoke at a news conference this week sponsored by the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

A flu epidemic is unlikely this year, Perez said, but the continued detection of different bird flu strains is still important. Because a virus is highly pathogenic in one type of bird, like chickens, doesn’t imply it will be infectious for other birds or humans, he said.

The remarks by Perez come less than a week after officials from both the Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization said separately that a human pandemic from avian flu is likely, if not this year then soon.

Another pandemic is virtually inevitable because of how fast the virus mutates, John M. Barry, author of the book “The Great Influenza,” said last week during a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing. He is also a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities.

“All influenza viruses originate as bird viruses, but their mutation rate allows them to jump species, from birds to humans,” Barry told the committee. “The best-case scenario is bad enough to get the attention of any American.”

Avian flu is found in several different strains and has affected the United States before, said Nathaniel Tablante, associate professor of poultry health at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

“We do have sporadic outbreaks of avian flu,” Tablante said. “Most cases have been of the low-pathogen type.”

Virginia, Maryland and Delaware are all major producers of poultry. Avian flu outbreaks in 2002 in Virginia and 2004 in Maryland and Delaware taught veterinarians the best ways to euthanize infected flocks and dispose of the carcasses to prevent the disease from spreading, Tablante said.

The H5N1 strain has not been found in North America, Tablante said. All poultry produced in the United States is safe to eat, he added.