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Last Updated: Monday, 20 November 2006, 10:39 GMT
Bird flu: Is it still a threat?
By Caroline Parkinson
BBC News, health reporter

Winter is the time of year when people's thoughts turn to flu.
Wild birds may still be harbouring the virus

But this time last year, it wasn't the usual seasonal flu which was occupying the thoughts of doctors, the media and the public - it was bird flu.

Twelve months on, how have things changed? Are we still at risk? And are we any better placed to fight the deadly H5N1 virus?

The H5N1 virus is still around. But experts say it has been largely "dormant" in recent months.

Europe has seen no cases since the outbreak in Turkey, nor has Africa been hit by any major outbreaks since the beginning of the year.

In South-East Asia, where most cases of bird flu are seen both in animals and humans, there have been no cases in Vietnam this year, whereas it was previously a hot-spot for bird flu.

Experts say this is probably because people have learnt to restrict access to birds and so reduced infection risk, and because monitoring systems have been improved so the virus would not have the chance to spread unchecked.

Variation, not mutation

Dr Alan Hay, head of the World Influenza Centre at the National Institute for Medical Research said: "Things have been quiet for the last six months in most parts of the world.

"In Europe it has calmed right down, and there hasn't been a resurgence in Africa.

"Once people know what to avoid and what measures to take, you don't get the cases."

There is no evidence the virus has an increased capacity to spread
Dr Alan Hay, WHO influenza centre

But he said: "We don't know what's smouldering away in some part of the world we can't keep our eye on."

The fear is that the H5N1 virus will combine with a human flu virus and mutate into a pandemic strain which could spread easily between people.

There have been no indications over the last 12 months that this is any closer.

But the virus has not gone away.

It has changed, as all viruses do. And there have been cases, such as a cluster in Indonesia, where family members have contracted bird flu.

But, importantly, it was H5N1 they caught, and not a mutated strain.

Dr Hay said: "There is some evidence of variation in the strain, but there is no evidence the virus has an increased capacity to spread. We haven't seen any change."

'Don't panic'

And we are better placed to fight any pandemic which does occur.

The UK government is stockpiling doses of the anti-flu drug Tamiflu

There are several trials of vaccines against the existing H5N1 virus which are showing promise.

Professor John Oxford, a virologist at Queen Mary School of Medicine, London, said: "Things have changed tremendously over the last 12 months.

"Every major vaccine manufacturing group has now got an H5N1 vaccine in production. A year ago, that didn't seem possible.

"And the stockpiles of antiviral drugs are increasing."

But Dr Hay added: "The concern is that, as winter approaches, the birds will migrate southwards towards Europe and Africa. We really don't know what they are carrying.

So how worried should members of the UK public be? The experts say they should not panic.

Dr Hay said: "There is no reason for the individual to have any reason for concern unless they're involved in dealing with birds.

"People shouldn't feel in danger. Contingency measures are in place to monitor wild birds.

"And there have been very few poultry workers who have been infected and shown clinical symptoms."

It is likely that the coming months will see more cases of birds infected with the H5N1 virus.

But the experts' conclusion is that the chances it will mutate into a dangerous pandemic strain are no greater than they were this time last year.

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