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Health Talk Recommends: A more transparent battle with bird flu

Imagine a virus that could infect — and jump to and from — birds or mammals that is always adapting and changing, so by the time researchers have an answer for one strain, it’s already changed forms.

The virus, of course, is influenza.

In an editorial in the Washington Post, the editorial board explores H7N9, the most recent strain of avian influenza (bird flu). The board writes:

“This variant, known as H7N9, has not reached U.S. shores, but it is a reminder of the unpredictable nature of influenza. It might cause a pandemic, or settle into a slow burn for years, or simply die out. At this stage, no one knows. The uncertainty ought to remind us of past lessons about infectious disease and globalization, which remain as urgent as ever.”

While health officials wait to see if H7N9 develops into a human influenza pandemic, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) researchers believe the arsenal of public health tools that can reduce influenza deaths or cases is limited.

In the online version of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), CIDRAP researchers share why there is no reason to believe that that a yet-to-be-developed H7N9 vaccine will perform any better than the 2009 H1N1 vaccine or existing seasonal vaccines.

With the emergence of H7N9 in humans — as well as infections of the SARS-like coronavirus in humans — public health authorities around the globe are on high alert. But is there reason to be alarmed?

Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H., director of CIDRAP and professor at the School of Public Health, writes in a New York Times commentary:

“Alarmingly, we face a third, and far more widespread, ailment that has gotten little attention: call it ‘contagion exhaustion.’ News reports on a seemingly unending string of frightening microbes — bird flu, flesh-eating strep, SARS, AIDS, Ebola, drug-resistant bugs in hospitals, the list goes on — have led some people to ho-hum the latest reports.”

Osterholm may not be the only person worried about contagion exhaustion. In closing their editorial, the Washington Post editorial board writes:

“It is natural for people to grow fatigued about warnings of pandemic. If it hasn’t happened, why worry? Here’s why: Germs do not stop at passport control. What happens in China today could happen here tomorrow. Bird flu is everyone’s problem, and we can only hope that China continues to fight it effectively and with transparency.”

For full stories, please turn to the Washington Post, New York Times and JAMA.

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