Bird Flu Update

A Professor's Perspective On Current Events

Image of Professor Barry Fox, M.D.
By Professor Barry Fox, M.D.

The Bird Flu. It’s been out of the news for a while, but is making a resurgence. Dr. Barry Fox discusses the risks and possibilities of a potential pandemic.

This article originally premiered on The Washington Post.

We are also aware of the coverage in TIME magazine last week, titled ” We are not ready for the next Pandemic”. In my infectious disease course, Lecture 24 is titled ” The hunt for the next Pandemic”. Viewers are challenged to use the information they learned from the prior lectures to predict the most likely germ, which (spoiler alert) turns out to be Avian influenza.

The Washington Post article raises serious concerns about our preparedness to manage an avian influenza pandemic. There are concerns regarding early diagnosis, and concerns regarding proper and efficient vaccine production should such a circumstance arise.

My work as an infectious disease specialist has more local and national focus on preventing the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, through proper use of antibiotic, both in the hospital, and now in the community. I also focus on preventing infections as a hospital epidemiologist.

The Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine is a national leader in the diagnosis and management of avian influenza concerns. I posed the question to one of their directors, who gave the following reply:

  1. Biosecurity and education to implement biosecurity require large amounts of cash.  Right now, the entire funding of APHIS (Animal Plant Health Inspection Service – The Veterinary component of USDA) receives about 225 million per year, total.  The dairy industry alone in Wisconsin is 43.5 Billion per year.  Billion with a “B.” The article is correct that USDA can’t make a farm have good biosecurity – but every commercial herd does the best they can because it has an immediate impact on their flock health.  Influenza isn’t the only thing they battle.
  2. In 2015, most large farms that were infected were thought to have state of the art biosecurity in place.  They learned differently.  We learned many new things about what truly is effective biosecurity on farms with hundreds of thousands to millions of birds.
  3. In the US, we have a National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN) that is fully prepared to diagnose and test for control and eradication.  UW WVDL is a Level 1 lab in this network (1 of 6 level 1 labs, 66 labs total).
  4. We will find FluA fast because we regularly monitor and require testing for interstate movement.  This is not the case in many other countries.  This requires significant cost and infrastructure to do effectively. Just because we can find it doesn’t mean we can control it or stop it because of the significant factor of migratory birds and other wildlife.
  5. Looking at other species for FluA is also being done on a regular basis.
  6. With science, in general, taking a huge financial hit in potential new federal budgets, all infectious disease control, and research will be slowed or stopped.

Another process at work at the University of Wisconsin is active research on how Avian influenza MIGHT be more widely spread from person to person, which is not currently the case. Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka has been actively working on this mechanism of transmission. He is also working on way to manufacture flu shots with dog or monkey cells instead of chicken eggs.

This article is part of our Professor’s Perspective series—a place for experts to share their views and opinions on current events.

Finally the current antiviral medications used to treat common season influenza continue to be active against avian influenza strains. The US government also keeps a large stockpile of antiviral medications that could be used in a pandemic situation

Hence, while the Washington Post article was insightful, there are other factors considered above that should also be considered in assessing the US preparedness for a pandemic avian influenza.

For more with Professor Fox, check out “An Introduction to Infectious Diseases” on The Great Courses Plus!