Villanova continues to monitor avian flu

Katherine Roth

Reports came out on Jan. 30th that the avian flu had spread to northern Iraq. The World Health Organization confirmed an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of flu, after a preliminary autopsy on a young Kurdish girl who died in early January. Since it may spread to the United States, the avian flu remains a constant threat to the health and well-being of the nation.

The avian influenza is an infectious disease of birds caused by the type-A strain of the influenza virus. The disease was first identified more than 100 years ago in Italy and can occur worldwide. All types of bird are considered susceptible to carrying the virus, but researchers have found that wild ducks are more resistant than domestic poultry, such a chickens and turkeys, who are particularly susceptible to catching and spreading the disease.

The avian influenza does not normally live in species other than birds and pigs; however, humans became ill with the bird flu in 1997 in Hong Kong. The H5N1 strain infected eighteen humans; six of those infected were fatal cases. Some of these people came into close contact with the live infected poultry, which most likely caused the infection.

Studies done by genetics researchers proved that the virus jumped from birds to humans, which caused devastating illness with a high percentage of fatality. To prevent any further spread of the disease, Hong Kong destroyed its entire population of poultry (estimated at 1.5 million birds) within three days.

At present, there is no vaccine to protect people from the strain. Officials at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and WHO have teams across Asia to monitor the flu strain’s advance and are working to test clinical trials of possible vaccines. Most recently, the U.S. government has spent more than $160 million this fiscal year to build a small stockpile of vaccine based on the version of the flu virus that’s killing birds today.

The WHO has particular concern for the H5N1 strain of the avian influenza because it mutates rapidly and seems to acquire genes from viruses, which infect other species of animals. H5N1 can cause severe disease in humans, and with more of the birds coming down with the flu, there is a greater opportunity of a direct transmittance to humans. Genetics researchers warn that humans could become a type of vessel in which a new virus could be created and then transmitted from person to person, causing an influenza pandemic that the CDC is not ready to fight.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC in Atlanta stated in an interview in April 2005 that the CDC was ready to fight the avian flu if it spread to the United States. Gerberding also urged anyone traveling to western Asia to stay away from poultry markets.

But how is Villanova University prepared if the flu were to spread to the United States and specifically to Pennsylvania, where the college is located? First of all the Health Center wants the students to know what the symptoms of the flu are: humans show signs of fever, sore throat, cough and in several of the fatal cases seen in Asia, severe respiratory distress secondary to viral pneumonia.

Dr. Mary McGonigle, director of the Student Health Center, is continuously monitoring the CDC reports regarding the avian flu.

“Villanova has general emergency protocols that the administration follows, and an outbreak of the avian flu would certainly be an emergency situation,” she said. “An epidemic of the avian flu is a unique situation however, and we as a university would follow recommendations from the CDC regarding management.”

Students themselves can also help by staying on top of current events in regards to the flu’s progress. “I think the most important defense against a pandemic is information,” said freshman Eliza Pierson. “Knowing what’s going on is what is going to keep us one step ahead.”

For more information, visit the Center for Disease Control’s website regarding the bird flu at