Henry Wan uses a centrifuge to isolate the flu viruses he researches. Wan and his colleagues discovered the first molecular evidence linking live poultry markets in China to human H5N1 avian influenza. Photo by: MSU College of Veterinary Medicine/Tom Thompson
April 28, 2015 10:42:39 AM
STARKVILLE -- Influenza remains among the deadliest diseases known to living organisms on Earth.
Every year, the flu kills thousands of people. But in recent years, the type that scares the public the most has been avian flu strains, such as the H5N1 threat that spread from Asia to Europe and Africa in the early 2000s and has affected 650 humans in 15 countries since 2003.
Now, a new strain of avian flu, H5N2, is moving through poultry farms across the upper plains and Midwest regions of the U.S. and Canada.
Dr. Henry Wan, a systems biology professor at Mississippi State University, is among the world's preeminent authorities on avian flu. He said it is important we not overreact with fear.
Wan was the first researcher to recognize and document the avian flu. He was a 23-year-old master's student in his native China when he identified influenza in geese in 1996. It was the original discovery of the H5N1 virus.
'It could come to Mississippi'
H5N2 has claimed the lives of three million birds in Minnesota, taking out 6 percent of the state's turkey farms. Minnesota is the nation's leading turkey producer. The flu has popped up in 16 states since emerging this winter. The upper Midwest has been the hardest hit, but cases have spread down the Mississippi valley into Missouri and Arkansas. Where the flu will go next, Wan said, is anyone's guess.
"Apparently, we cannot predict where it goes," Wan said. "There is a risk it could come to Mississippi."
The concern is the flu's potential to mutate and affect new species. The virus is already affecting chickens and turkeys, but Wan said these species are very similar. Making the jump to humans is a taller task.
"They can cause human problems, but it hasn't happened yet," Wan said. "We cannot predict if or when this will happen."
Inside Wan's lab at MSU, he and his 18 team members have a grant to study how diseases spread from one species to another.
It is believed the H5N2 strain of avian flu is carried by waterfowl, for whom it does not have a deadly affect. The virus does not have a deadly affect in food. If someone ate eat a bird affected with the flu, they would be safe, so long as the meat was thoroughly cooked Wan said. There have been no recorded human cases of H5N2.
Wan said the focus needs to be on containing the spread, and though researchers are preparing vaccines, he believes the best way to deal with the initial outbreak is eradication and isolation.
"In my opinion, in the United States, a vaccine is not an effective strategy," he said.
He thinks poultry farms should increase their bird security by limiting the potential for contact with other bird species. The birds in farms that have been affected need to be killed. Security on the farms themselves needs to be increased. For example, Wan said it is critical for workers on farms to clean all their clothing and equipment thoroughly before entering their farms, especially if they've been duck hunting.
Farmers have had to kill significant portions of their flocks, but the federal government compensates those who do so. Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it has $84 million to reimburse farmers for lost stock. But the USDA has already received $60 million in claims.
U.S. in position to deal with outbreak
Wan said the U.S. is a much safer place to have this virus break out than Asia, Africa or Europe. Our system of massive supermarkets and commercial farms makes tracking the spread of the virus and containing it is easier. In his native China and many other nations, people often keep a few chickens for eggs and meat. Live animals are brought to open air markets. We are in a better position to control the virus, he said, because "you don't see live animals at Walmart."
The U.S. also has fewer waterfowl species than Eurasia, which means fewer animals carrying the disease with them.
"In the United States, we have better security than Asia," Wan said.
For now, researchers and officials with the Center for Disease Control, where Wan worked as an influenza specialist for five years, believe the virus will stay contained in the areas it currently affects. Wan said once summer ends and waterfowl begin migrations, the risk of H5N2 spreading will increase. As fear of the disease has spread, Mexico announced it would not be taking in poultry products from the U.S., its largest supplier of bird meat, a move Wan said is more likely politically-based than scientifically-founded.
In his lab at MSU's school of veterinary medicine, Wan and his students are attempting to expand our understanding of influenza so the next generation has more tools to handle the constantly evolving virus.
Wan maintains there is nothing about the current outbreak that we aren't capable of dealing with as a country.
"Don't be scared," he said, "this is the same thing that has been around us forever."
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