The news from sunsari about culling poultry (pictured) because of bird flu is alarming. There are also reports that crows are dying in Kathmandu in large numbers. This has caused anxiety and raised questions about whether humans are at risk. The first outbreak of bird flu was in May 1997 when a child in Hong Kong died of this illness, perhaps the first known human infection with influenza A (H5N1), or avian influenza (bird flu).
After 18 cases and six deaths in Hong Kong, the virus appeared to be under control and possibly eradicated by the end of 1997. But it returned in 2003, and it has subsequently continued to evolve and spread. The good news is that the Achilles heel of the virus is its inability to cause efficient human to human transmission. The spread is limited to birds, and humans are occasional victims when they come in contact with infected birds. Among the 564 confirmed human cases reported worldwide through August 2011, nearly all were acquired by direct contact with poultry, with person to person spread being almost non-existent. Bird flu is often compared to another avian strain, the agent of the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, which traversed the world in three months and caused an estimated 50 million deaths.
When it infects people, the virus is lethal. Aside from culling the birds, the other means for controlling spread are vaccines and antiviral agents. If oseltamivir is started within the first 48 hours of symptoms, the benefit is significant. But the problem is the cost and the availability of the drug when you need it. The vaccine against this virus is stockpiled in rich countries, and it is unlikely that this vaccine will be available in adequate amounts for Nepal.
So for now how do we deal with an outbreak?
Poultry farmers, butchers, and cooks who deal directly with poultry and raw meat are the most vulnerable. In Kathmandu people should avoid contact with dead crows.
Washing hands thoroughly with soap and water every time we go to the toilet or any time we handle live birds, raw poultry or uncooked eggs is protective. Proper cooking kills the virus, so eating steaming chicken momos will not cause bird flu.