Is the Bird Flu Virus Getting Weaker?

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The most interesting bird flu news out of Turkey so far is that the H5N1 virus doesnít seem to make everyone it infects deathly ill. In fact, doctors in an Ankara hospital are closely watching two young tots who have the virus but arenít displaying any symptoms. Could this be a sign that a slightly weakened strain of the virus is circulating in Turkey? Or is it just that physicians are getting better at finding all folks with bird flu infections, including those that donít normally wind up in the hospital?

Until now, most folks didnít get tested for bird flu unless they were sick enough to require intensive medical supervision. And indeed, about half of all cases that have been confirmed by the World Health Organization have ended in death. But that doesnít mean bird flu is necessarily 50% fatal for humans. A study in this weekís Archives of Internal Medicine found preliminary evidence that lots of farmers in a rural province in Vietnam may have had bird flu but never felt sick enough to seek medical care.

The Archives study isnít conclusive because no blood tests confirming the presence of H5N1 were performed. But the hypothesis that bird flu is more common and less deadly than previously thought is intriguing.

Just donít get too comfortable with the thought. The 1918 flu pandemic, which killed more than 50 million people around the world, was, from a mathematical point of view, not very fatal since it killed only 2% of the people it infected. That probably wasnít a very comforting thought, however, to the 98% who survived.

For more information, read Christineís new daily health blog