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Bird flu could 'unleash pandemic'

Epidemics are nothing new to American Indians.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="yes" status="yes" scrollbars="yes"><p>Indian Country Today</p></a

Most of the time in Indian country, the list of things that can get you is long indeed. If too much sugar and fatty foods don't kill you, the PCBs and the mercury upstream will; if the black mold infestation doesn't wipe out your lungs, maybe the high rate of smokers around you will, or the alcohol; and so on.

Well, here's another one to think about. From the list of diseases that could unleash a pandemic, pull up the dreaded, newly-generated Asian bird flu. This international threat - also known as the H5N1 subtype of the avian influenza virus - is likely to be one more very dangerous result of civilization's need to manufacture animals, in this case chickens and other fowl, by the tens of thousands for people to eat. Such a quickly-evolving virus could, in this age of globalization, make its way across the world and kill millions upon millions.

Could kill millions
It is a killer, this Asian bird flu that emerged from chicken farms in the Far East from Thailand to China and is known to kill quickly and widely wherever it can spread. Top World Health Organization officials periodically warn the global community about this one. While so far it has been confined to small outbreaks in several Asian countries, officials warn that the virus could ''unleash a pandemic that could kill up to 50 million people.''

H5N1 flu has demonstrated the ability to transfer from birds to infect humans. A 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong killed six of 18 people directly infected by animals. It also set the pattern for high mortality in infected victims. Of this year's 44 confirmed human cases of H5N1 flu in Thailand and Vietnam, 32 victims died.

In the past several years, outbreaks among chickens, ducks and other fowl in Asia prompted the slaughter of millions of birds. A Thai woman who contracted it from her daughter was the first person in the latest outbreak to get bird flu from another human; and although isolated, unconfirmed cases of human-to-human transmission were logged in Hong Kong and Vietnam.

The human-to-human transfer is what could kick-start a pandemic. The virus is known to mutate, and experts fear it will create a form that will spread easily through the human population and create a worldwide pandemic.

Nothing new to American Indians
Epidemics and pandemics are nothing new to American Indians. Cowpox, chickenpox and smallpox were scourges of early contact with Europeans for virtually every Native nation. These diseases originate in the habit of Western and other civilizations to pen animals and live in close proximity with them.

The impact of epidemic disease brought from Europe to American Indian villages cannot be overstated. Where actual annihilation did not occur, typically ''decimation'' is the word, where 9 out of 10 people died. Such a degree of death took the joy out of the people, and the Pilgrims invoked a sense of the new Christian God's wrath to justify the onslaught of so much death among the indigenous people. Whole villages of many tribal nations were left empty, as if inviting the new migrants to settle in.

Some Christian leaders thought they were watching the hand of Providence at work, when actually a contact-level ethnic cleansing was making its way across an unsuspecting hemisphere. The negative impact of the diseases that spread such monstrous death among the Native populations was severe. Only now, centuries later, are American Indian nations recovering both population and conscious political and social power.

We promise in these pages to keep abreast of the health threat posed to Indian communities, particularly in the West Coast and in Canada, by this subtype of the Asian bird flu. Tribal health systems are urged to learn more about the potential effects as well as remedial approaches to this potentially deadly contagion. There is not yet a vaccine widely available for the disease, but raising the capability for response is always a welcome strategy.