Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 16:58 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 16:58 | SYDNEY

Avian flu: First human-to-human infection?

10 December 2007 13:45

Guest blogger: Alistair Thornton is a Beijing-based economic analyst. Alistair has a Masters in International Relations at the University of Sydney. His interests lie in public health, terrorism and the role of religion in public life.

 Little noticed late last week was news that a 52-year old man from the eastern Jiangsu province of China was the latest to contract avian influenza. The media furore following the 2003 avian influenza outbreak in Southeast Asia has died down, and now any claims of a pandemic to match the scale of the AIDS crisis are shot down as hyperbole. This is probably correct. To date, 207 people have died from the H5N1 virus and there have been 337 confirmed cases. This is light years away from HIV/AIDS, which has claimed well over 20 million lives and has 40 million sufferers worldwide. However, the influenza virus is far more contagious than HIV, and the onset of the epidemic is sudden and unexpected. Should it take hold, avian influenza has the potential to wreak devastating results. 

The 207 deaths linked to avian influenza were all caused by bird-to-human contact. This has meant that when an incidence of the virus appears, the area can be quarantined and the affected birds culled, halting the spread from infected birds to humans. What makes this latest case different is the possibility that it is the first human-to-human contraction of the virus. The 52-year old man was confirmed as having contracted the virus just days after his 24-year son died from it. WHO spokesman John Rainford has said, 'We are concerned. The fact that we have two cases here without necessarily a clear source of animal infection and within the same family means we need to make sure we do a thorough investigation.' The great fear of the public health community is that the H5N1 virus will mutate, allowing it to spread from human to human. If this occurs in our globalised world, the effects could be devastating. 

The Lowy Institute’s Warrick McKibbin has conducted extensive analysis on the macroeconomic effects of pandemic influenza. He concludes that, should H5N1 mutate into a pandemic strain, a mild scenario would cost the world 1.4 million lives and close to 0.8% of GDP. His ‘ultra’ scenario would cost the world 142.2 million lives and a GDP loss of $US4.4 trillion.

 In light of these sobering statistics, it would be wise to keep a beady eye on the case of Mr Lu of Jiangsu.