Saturday, October 22, 2005

Nature's Bioterrorist: Avian Flu Article from The New Yorker

From The New Yorker:
Early last September, an eleven-year-old girl from Kamphaeng Phet, a remote village in Thailand, developed a high fever, a severe cough, and a sore throat. She lived with her aunt and uncle in a one-room wooden house—not much more than a hut on stilts. The family had fifteen chickens, which wandered freely beneath the plank floor, where the young girl often played and slept. Then, at the end of August, the chickens died. Within days, the girl was sick, too. Her aunt took her to the hospital, but the fever kept rising. The girl’s mother, who lived near Bangkok, where she worked at a factory, rushed to her bedside; sixteen hours later, her daughter was dead. In keeping with Thai custom, she was cremated immediately.

Avian influenza is nothing new in Thailand, or anywhere else where poultry are raised. Veterinarians often refer to it as the fowl plague, because in one form or another the disease has killed millions of chickens, turkeys, and other birds over the years. In 1983, the virus raced so rapidly through the Pennsylvania poultry population that health officials there were forced to slaughter nearly every chicken in the state. Until recently, however, humans rarely became infected with this type of virus. It had happened fewer than a dozen times since 1959, and in each case the illness was mild. But the strain that killed the girl from Kamphaeng Phet is different; in the past two years, it has caused the deaths of hundreds of millions of animals in nearly a dozen Asian countries. No such virus has ever spread so quickly over such a wide geographical area. Most viruses stick to a single species. This one has already affected a more diverse group than any other type of flu, and it has killed many animals previously thought to be resistant: blue pheasants, black swans, turtledoves, clouded leopards, mice, pigs, domestic cats, and tigers. Early in February, nearly five hundred open-billed storks were found dead in Thailand’s largest freshwater swamp, the Boraphet Reservoir. And the disease is no longer limited to Asia. In October, customs officers at the Brussels airport seized two infected eagles that had been smuggled from Thailand and destroyed them, along with the other animals held in quarantine at the airport...
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