There is currently a worldwide scare over avian flu (also known as chicken or bird flu). The newspapers are full of information, warnings and general advice about the situation and the president of the Italian republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, has even made a plea for a calm approach to the problem. Since around one hundred human deaths resulting from close contact with infected birds in Asia, including Turkey, have been reported and especially since some wild mute swans arriving in Italy from the east were found to be infected, sales of poultry and eggs in the country have dropped by up to 80 per cent. Thousands of workers in the industry have also lost their jobs and incomes. Migratory wildfowl, particularly ducks and their close relatives, are the natural carriers of the virus and in this, the season of mass migration, the possibility of general panic over the problem is a real one. The virus has currently been reported from six European countries (France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Austria and Slovenia), so far without associated infections in the human population.

Avian influenza is a viral infection carried by, and affecting, wild birds all over the world. It is not new. The virus and the symptoms it provokes do not normally hit the headlines. After all, wild birds have lived and died with the virus from time immemorial. News is made, however, when the virus (any one of 15 or so sub-types) infects poultry farms and the personnel becomes infected. On these farms the birds are necessarily present in very dense populations and the infection can spread very quickly, causing wholesale deaths.

Avian flu was first identified in domesticated poultry over 100 years ago in Italy, oddly enough. Since then it has occurred on a large scale many times and in many different parts of the world. Between 1983 and 1984, an outbreak in the United States led to the death or destruction of about 17 million birds at a cost of around $65 million, while in the Italian epidemic of 1999-2001 some 13 million chickens were lost without receiving too much attention from the media. However, in 1997 the first documented accounts of humans being infected with the avian flu virus were reported from Hong Kong. Showing amazing initiative and responsibility, the Hong Kong authorities had the entire poultry population, about 1.5 million birds, destroyed within three days. Many experts consider that it was this prompt action that avoided a pandemic. The outbreaks in India, parts of Africa and elsewhere will be much harder to control since the territories involved are vast and the authorities perhaps lack the necessary facilities and determination. It must be difficult to persuade peasant poultry farmers that their livelihoods have to be destroyed.

The problem is now receiving enormous publicity in Italy. The cases of human deaths have almost always been among those who live and work in close contact with the birds, usually poultry farmers. Now, if the avian flu virus infects a human, especially a human who is also carrying the human flu virus, there is the possibility of it becoming modified so as to be transmittable, in its new form, from one person to another. If this were to happen, which does not seem to be the case so far, we would be in for a real pandemic which, like the so-called Spanish flu of 1918, could cause the death of millions of people. Vaccines to prevent the possible spread of the disease among humans are being researched and produced in many laboratories all over the world but it is difficult to know whether they would actually be the right ones should they be needed or whether there would be time enough to produce the vaccine in sufficient doses for millions of people. The fear is that if the virus starts mutating in infected humans or other mammals it will be very difficult to isolate in time to produce an appropriate vaccine.

Viruses are not, strictly speaking, living organisms. They are protein molecules, which cannot reproduce unless they enter a living cell and take over its mechanisms. Once this happens the new virus molecules are released and, in turn, invade other living cells. In the case of avian flu the virus particles from an infected bird are excreted through the faeces, respiratory apparatus or by direct contact. Clearly, if the virus gets into a poultry farm, mass infections are guaranteed. So far Italian poultry is free from the infection and stringent precautions are in force to prevent any possible spread of the disease. Quarantining of any infected farms is forseen and strict sanitary measures, including frequent inspections of poultry farms by officers of the local health authorities (ASL), are being enforced. The virus could easily be carried from one farm to another by mechanical means especially in winter when temperatures are low, so the disinfecting of cars and farm machinery in areas under risk becomes obligatory.

Many wild birds, including pigeons and sparrows, are naturally resistant to the virus and pose no problem, so there is no reason to panic in the presence of birds in general. The Italian health authorities advise that any dead bird found should not be handled but should be reported by calling the emergency number 1500. Moreover, poultry products, if properly cooked, cannot be infectious. Even if the virus were present in the uncooked meat or eggs (and this is extremely unlikely with all the precautions being taken), it would be rendered harmless by cooking. So why not take advantage of the poultry now on sale at very low prices?

The world is overpopulated and the population is growing exponentially. Sooner or later there has to be either a drastic decline in this population (since soon it will not be able to support itself) or a drastic increase in the sustainable production and distribution of foodstuffs together with a parallel reduction in wasteful practices. This is a fact that we in the rich, overfed and woefully wasteful west tend to forget or to make light of. Many believe that another pandemic like the Spanish flu is inevitable and even overdue. But it will probably have nothing to do with the present alarm. A sobering thought.