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Deadly Form of Flu Could Hit 1 of Every 10 in U.S. Families

  • U.S. health officials may be sitting on news of a deadly killer flu virus which appears to have originated in Red China.
By Mike Blair

Little is being done in the United States to warn the American people of a flu pandemic that has the potential of equaling, or being worse than the world- wide Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

The 1918 flu outbreak caused the deaths of 642,000 Americans. It killed 20 to 30 million people around the world. Health officials in Asia are working feverishly to warn the people -- particularly in Hong Kong and Japan.

The disease has been labeled H5N1 influenza A virus in Hong King.

While the U.S. media, with the encouragement of government health officials, has "downplayed" this epidemic, residents of Hong Kong are reportedly in a near panic.

Health officials working in Hong Kong, and the Centers for Disease Control (CEC) in Atlanta, claim they don't know how people get the disease. Nine of those stricken are staff members of hospitals where the two people who have died from H5N1 were treated. One victim was a three-year-old, the other was a 54-year-old man.

By last April, before the 3-year-old Hong Kong child was killed, 4,500 chickens on three poultry farms had died from the virus, which led to claims that it was a "chicken flu."

The chickens came from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, which daily exports about 80,000 chickens, providing about a third of the birds sold at markets in Hong Kong.


Huge numbers of chickens have reportedly died from the flu in Red China's southern provinces. The World Health Organization (WHO) has quietly dispatched a team of scientists to that region to gather data.

Also quietly, the CDC has sent a team of a least five U.S. scientists to Hong Kong to aid health experts there and to study and help develop possible vaccines.

While news of the deadly virus is being hushed in the United States and elsewhere, in Hong Kong health officials are coming under fire for not sounding the alarm to the public sooner.

This led Dr. Leong Che-hung, who represents the medical profession in Hong Kon's parliament, to accuse the health bureaucrats of "sitting on a volcano."

If the hesitancy of Hong Kon's health officials to act with more urgency was due to orders from Red China is not known. News of the outbreak has already led to a 70 percent drop in chicken sales in Hong Kong markets, most of which comes from Red Chinese farms.

"The first case was discovered in August [actually last April-May in the case of the 3-year-old child]," Leong said. "It was only in late November, that apparent actions were taken like the setting up of an expert task force."


Hong Kong health officials have now asked WHO to alert vaccine production centers worldwide to monitor developments with the view to begin preparing necessary vaccines.

Japanese health officials are moving quickly. Japanese firms are already preparing to produce vaccines, with the hope of lessening the four-month period that it normally takes to produce a new flu vaccine.

The Japanese Health and Welfare Ministry estimates that if H5N1 reaches Japan some 32 million people -- one in four Japanese - could catch the flu. Scientists are working around the clock to come up with a viable vaccine.

Although there have been warnings in the United States, officials do not appear to be worried.

"We have to realize that this virus is telling us that it's trying to seed itself into the human population," warned Dr Robert Webster, a virologist and influenza specialist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. "If it keeps doing this it will be bad news to say the least."

Some suspect the disease is an airborne contagion, that it is passed by tiny droplets from human respiration.

Experts warn that a flu pandemic has even a worse potential than the 1918 Spanish variety, which is primarily due to modern transportation.

As an example, hundreds of aircraft arrive and depart from Hong Kong every day.

"The whole world scene has changed," said Dr. Kennedy Short bridge, an Australian microbiologist who is Hong Kong University's influenza expert. "With a brand new virus theoretically you could have global dissemination with in 24 hours.

The only known drug to be effective n treating the flu virus is amantadine. However, world supplies of the drug are limited. Large amounts have been sent to Hong Kong.

"H5N1 appears to be something new, something that is not following usual patterns of flu evolution," one expert said.