A case of the flu

The anxiety isn't about what has happened so far as much as about hypothetical scenarios.

bird flu turkeys 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
bird flu turkeys 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
It was only a matter of time before avian flu was transported to our domain by its winged migratory carriers. There was never justification to expect that we would be spared contamination, considering that the disease was obviously already endemic in our region - having been reported in Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Cyprus. In all likelihood it appeared elsewhere in nearby Arab states, but either hadn't been detected or reported. Since Israel is situated on the crossroads of three continents, directly along one of the greatest flight-paths for migratory birds, the odds were stacked from the outset against escaping this malady altogether. If any surprise exists, it's that bird flu did not surface here any earlier. That said, Israel is no worse off than other eastern-hemisphere countries - among them states in the vanguard of scientific research and medical services. The lethal H5N1 virus made its way out of East Asia and has been reported as far as Sweden, Austria, Germany, Switzerland and France. We hardly face a unique danger, nor face it alone. In all, fowl have died from this killer flu in no less than 40 countries. Virulent as the virus is in birds, however, we must remember that from its first discovery in human patients - and through quite a few mutations -- some 180 humans have been infected by it, of whom less than 100 died. Many more people die each year from more common strains of flu with which we are familiar. Special attention to all those in direct physical contact with the affected poultry is called for, but thus far this is primarily a bird disease. It was communicated to humans in rare instances only, and mostly in cases of people who all but lived with their ailing birds, kept them at home, and handled their droppings. At this point in time this disease has never been passed on from human to human and there are no grounds for the fear that the critical mutation will occur in Israel of all places. Hysteria by the general public is entirely unwarranted. The anxiety isn't about what has happened as much as about hypothetical scenarios. Flu viruses mutate easily and frequently. They might indeed combine with one of the common human influenza viruses and produce hybrids that can be contagious from human to human. In such a scenario, H5N1 could evolve into a pathogen of plague proportions. This isn't idle conjecture. The deadliest influenza epidemic ever - the one that took scores of millions of human lives in 1918 - is thought to have originated in birds and mutated into a scourge of unprecedented magnitude. Extreme care, therefore, is imperative to isolate the outbreak as much as possible, given the fact that it's spread by undomesticated avian flocks that know no boundaries. In these circumstances, we trust that our veterinary and public health authorities are no less up to the job than their European counterparts. Israelis should go about their daily lives as they had hitherto, just as the Swiss do. There's no need to change our routines or dietary habits. We can continue consuming poultry products as we had. The virus, which in any case does not normally infect humans, will not survive heat. As long as meat and eggs are purchased from known suppliers and all poultry-derived foodstuffs are well cooked or fried, they can be eaten without hesitation. It would be comforting to know that given this particular peril - one that doesn't differentiate between nationalities, religions and races - we could expect full, unstinting and sincere cooperation between all neighboring countries, as well as with the Palestinian Authority. We should bear in mind that the first cases of bird flu in Israel were discovered in two kibbutzim - Ein Hashlosha and Holit - located a very short distance from the Gaza Strip. For wild birds, there are no political demarcations, no security fences and certainly no disengagement. Whatever erupts on one side of the divide isn't likely to have spared poultry in the immediately adjacent territory. International cooperation in such instances should be regarded both a humanitarian and health-preserving priority. befo