Hot Topic - Bird Flu
Pandemics happen when a novel influenza virus emerges that infects and can be efficiently transmitted between humans. Animals are the most likely reservoir for these emerging viruses; avian viruses played a role in the last three influenza pandemics. Two of these pandemic-causing viruses remain in circulation and are responsible for the majority of influenza cases each year.
A notable and worrisome feature of the H5N1 virus is its ability to infect a wide range of hosts, including birds and humans. Although the virus has not yet shown an ability to transmit efficiently between humans, as is seen with the annual influenza virus, there is concern that it will acquire this capability through genetic mutation or exchange of genetic material with a human influenza virus.
It is impossible to know whether the currently circulating H5N1 virus will cause a human pandemic. The widespread nature of H5N1 in birds and the likelihood of mutations over time raise our concerns that the virus will become transmissible between humans, with potentially catastrophic consequences. If this does not happen with the current H5N1 strain, history suggests that a different influenza virus will emerge and result in the next pandemic.