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From zoonosis to pandemic

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The threat of new zoonotic disease pandemics should not be underestimated, said Ab Osterhaus, giving the WSAVA's International Lecture at the recent WSAVA/FECAVA/BSAVA congress. He highlighted the importance of identifying and tracking viruses so that vaccines could be developed and control measures put in place. Arianwen Morris reports

HIGHLY pathogenic avian influenza A viruses can kill about 60 per cent of the people they infect, but, at this time, do not have the capacity to spread from human to human. If mutations occurred that made this possible, it would lead to a highly lethal pandemic.

This was a sobering message from the WSAVA international lecture, ‘Zoonosis to pandemic: viral threats from the animal world’, given by Ab Osterhaus, head of the department of virology at the Erasmus Medical Centre in the Netherlands, during the WSAVA/FECAVA/BSAVA congress in Birmingham last month.

Of even more concern were the results of research, carried out in Professor Osterhaus's laboratory, which showed that it was possible to create a virulent strain of avian influenza virus that was capable of human-to-human transmission. ‘We have analysed what the virus needs to really become transmissible from animal to animal, from mammal to mammal, and probably from human to human,’ he said. ‘It's not more than a handful of mutations.’

He pointed out that, since these mutations were already circulating in separate influenza viruses in the wild, a pandemic of highly pathogenic avian influenza in humans was a very real possibility.

However, new strains of existing viruses were not the only threat to humans, and new challenges continued to present themselves. ‘There is a plethora of reasons for that,’ he said, citing globalisation and global travel, urbanisation and human encroachment as examples.

In 1999, seven people had died after visiting Central …

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