The earliest infections of humans by H5N1 coincided with an epizootic (an epidemic in nonhumans) of H5N1 influenza in Hong Kong's poultry population. This panzootic (a disease affecting animals of many species, especially over a wide area) outbreak was stopped by the killing of the entire domestic poultry population within the territory. However, the disease has continued to spread. On December 21 the WHO announced a total of 447 cases which resulted in the deaths of 263.
H5N1 is mainly spread by domestic poultry, both through the movements of infected birds and poultry products and through the use of infected poultry manure as fertilizer or feed. Humans with H5N1 have typically caught it from chickens, which were in turn infected by other poultry or waterfowl. Migrating waterfowl (wild ducks, geese and swans) carry H5N1, often without becoming sick. Many species of birds and mammals can be infected with HPAI A(H5N1), but the role of animals other than poultry and waterfowl as disease-spreading hosts is unknown.
According to a report by the World Health Organization, H5N1 may be spread indirectly. The report stated that the virus may sometimes stick to surfaces or get kicked up in fertilizer dust to infect people.
H5N1 has mutated into a variety of strains with differing pathogenic profiles, some pathogenic to one species but not others, some pathogenic to multiple species. Each specific known genetic variation is traceable to a virus isolate of a specific case of infection. Through antigenic drift, H5N1 has mutated into dozens of highly pathogenic varieties divided into genetic clades which are known from specific isolates, but all currently belonging to genotype Z of avian influenza virus H5N1, now the dominant genotype. H5N1 isolates found in Hong Kong in 1997 and 2001 were not consistently transmitted efficiently among birds and did not cause significant disease in these animals. In 2002 new isolates of H5N1 were appearing within the bird population of Hong Kong. These new isolates caused acute disease, including severe neurological dysfunction and death in ducks. This was the first reported case of lethal influenza virus infection in wild aquatic birds since 1961. Genotype Z emerged in 2002 through reassortment from earlier highly pathogenic genotypes of H5N1 Genotype Z is endemic in birds in Southeast Asia, has created at least two clades that can infect humans, and is spreading across the globe in bird populations. Mutations are occurring within this genotype that are increasing their pathogenicity. Birds are also able to shed the virus for longer periods of time before their death, increasing the transmissibility of the virus.
Transmission and host range
Infected birds transmit H5N1 through their saliva, nasal secretions, feces and blood. Other animals may become infected with the virus through direct contact with these bodily fluids or through contact with surfaces contaminated with them. H5N1 remains infectious after over 30 days at 0 °C ( 32.0 °F) (over one month at freezing temperature) or 6 days at 37 °C ( 98.6 °F) (one week at human body temperature) so at ordinary temperatures it lasts in the environment for weeks. In Arctic temperatures, it doesn't degrade at all.
Because migratory birds are among the carriers of the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus, it is spreading to all parts of the world. H5N1 is different from all previously known highly pathogenic avian flu viruses in its ability to be spread by animals other than poultry.
In October 2004, researchers discovered that H5N1 is far more dangerous than was previously believed. Waterfowl were revealed to be directly spreading the highly pathogenic strain of H5N1 to chickens, crows, pigeons, and other birds, and the virus was increasing its ability to infect mammals as well. From this point on, avian flu experts increasingly referred to containment as a strategy that can delay, but not ultimately prevent, a future avian flu pandemic.
"Since 1997, studies of influenza A (H5N1) indicate that these viruses continue to evolve, with changes in antigenicity and internal gene constellations; an expanded host range in avian species and the ability to infect felids; enhanced pathogenicity in experimentally infected mice and ferrets, in which they cause systemic infections; and increased environmental stability."
''The New York Times'', in an article on transmission of H5N1 through smuggled birds, reports Wade Hagemeijer of Wetlands International stating, "We believe it is spread by both bird migration and trade, but that trade, particularly illegal trade, is more important".
On September 27, 2007 researchers reported that the H5N1 bird flu virus can also pass through a pregnant woman's placenta to infect the fetus. They also found evidence of what doctors had long suspected—that the virus not only affects the lungs, but also passes throughout the body into the gastrointestinal tract, the brain, liver, and blood cells.
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Last Updated: Feb 1, 2011