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There is several risk groups associated with the avian influenza virus that should be extra cautious in the case of an outbreak or bird flu pandemic. These groups cannot be determined for certain, but are predicted to include infants, the elderly, pregnant women, and persons with chronic medical conditions.

While the susceptibility to the pandemic influenza virus will be universal, some persons will become infected but not develop clinically significant symptoms. Asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic individuals can transmit infection and develop immunity to subsequent infection.

The number of hospitalizations and deaths will depend on the virulence of the pandemic virus. Estimates differ about 10-fold between more and less severe scenarios. Officials are taking certain public health measures, like closing schools and quarantining household contacts of infected individuals, will likely decrease risk of transmission in these specific groups of individuals who may be more vulnerable to the virus. It is estimated that on average, infected persons will transmit infection to approximately two other people. Also, in an affected community a pandemic outbreak will last about 6 to 8 weeks.

While the World Health Organization said there was “appropriate alarm” each time the virus, especially the H5N1 strain shows up in a new country, they say it is important to keep the risk to humans in perspective. Dick Thompson, WHO spokesman said, “People confuse it with pandemic influenza, but they’re very different diseases,” and if “people just paid attention to the human risk” from bird flu, they’d understand that “the possibility of infection is very low.”

These health officials have been tracking the strain out due to a concern that it could mutate into a form more easily transmitted between people, and trigger a human pandemic. However, at the moment the flu is mostly a bird disease. H5N1 type A influenza has killed about 60 people in Asia, but most were poultry farmers who were infected directly by birds. A WHO statement said, “The spread of H5N1 to poultry in new areas is of concern as it increases opportunities for further human cases to occur;” however “all evidence to date indicates that the H5N1 virus does not spread easily from birds to infect humans.”

It is difficult to identify who is most vulnerable to the bird flu. Flu in general is usually most dangerous to young children and to the elderly. A lot depends on whether there is any immunity to the flu in certain populations. The 1918 flu pandemic was more deadly to young adults than to those over 40. It is believed that a similar virus may have circulated more than 40 years before, giving some immunity to those who caught it.

Although it is very difficult to predict the consequences of an influenza pandemic, it is likely that several age groups would be seriously affected. The greatest risk of hospitalization and death, as seen during the last two pandemics in 1957 and 1968 and during annual influenza, will be infants, the elderly, and those with underlying health conditions, such as pregnant women. However, in the 1918 pandemic, most deaths occurred in young adults. Few, if any people would be immune to this virus.

Right now the risk from avian influenza is generally low to most people, because the virus doesn’t usually infect humans. H5N1 is one of the few avian influenza viruses to have crossed the species barrier to infect humans, and is the most deadly of those that have crossed the barrier.

Although the risk to humans in general is low, in the case of a world wide pandemic, the most vulnerable members of the human species will be the most likely to contract the bird flu and die from it. However, if it follows the patterns of previous outbreaks, it cannot be predicted at this time who will suffer the greatest from the H5N1 avian influenza virus.

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