The most dangerous strain of influenza to appear in years is working its way through Asia and some experts fear it could turn into a huge pandemic on par with the Spanish flu that killed 40 million people in 1918. Right now, Ground Zero is Vietnam.
About 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, there’s a new battle raging here, pitting man against a deadly virus that has killed 62 Asians in the last two years — 42 in Vietnam alone — from avian influenza or “bird flu.”
Most of the human victims came in contact with infected poultry so health workers are trying to head off the virus by vaccinating healthy birds and killing off the sick ones, tens of millions of them.
Southeast Asia is the ideal incubator for a global outbreak of avian flu. Its an area where birds and people live in close proximity to one another and where the virus can mutate into forms that can be transmitted from human to human.
Twenty-one-year-old Nguyen Si Tuan considers himself lucky to be alive. In February, he was hospitalized with bird flu but survived, despite losing more than 30 pounds.
During that time, a nurse who treated Tuan also got the disease. If human transmission becomes widespread, experts fear that could start a pandemic — a global spread of deadly flu.
“All the alarm signs really are here now,” says the World Health Organization’s Dr. Peter Horby, “We know that previous pandemics have been associated with avian viruses.”
The disease is being spread by infected migrating birds. It’s already been detected in 13 Asian countries, including Vietnam, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Laos, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Bangladesh, and experts say it’s only a matter of time before it reaches the United States.
Scientists in Alaska are on alert for the first signs of bird flu in North America, while in Rochester, Baltimore and Los Angeles, testing is under way on a human avian flu vaccine.
“You could likely have enough vaccine if you had enough time to contain it and nip it in the bud,” says Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
That’s a big if — if this deadly virus can be stopped in Vietnam and other parts of Asia before it claims millions of human lives.