MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna.)
Talk of an epidemic of bird flu in Russia is premature and should be avoided, a leading expert said. "No human in Russia has yet contracted bird flu. At any rate, it is too early to panic and speak of an epidemic," said Professor Vasily Boyev, head of the epidemiology cybernetics laboratory at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology.
The form of avian influenza dangerous for human beings forms when two flu viruses - one human and the other avian - mutate in the human body. "When these two viruses meet they mix together and swap their genes," Boyev said. "The result is a derivative virus - for example, the well-known H5N1 - that is transferable from person to person by contact."
Boyev also pointed to another hazard. "We need wait for a season of common flu and then start monitoring the situation," he said. "It is in that context that we may see a high incidence rate of the epidemic strain."
Russia's chief health inspector Gennady Onishchenko, however, takes an optimistic view. "I hope we will enter the season of acute respiratory diseases without the bird flu virus. All domestic fowl from the infected areas will be sterilized: A package of preventative measures has been defined and is being applied on a wide scale," he told a conference on preventative measures in Novosibirsk on August 3.
The Federal Sanitary Service is continuing to wipe out bird flu hot-spots registered in the Novosibirsk and Tyumen regions and in Altai Territory. These regions abound in lakes that serve as stop-offs for the migrating birds considered to be responsible for bringing the disease into Russia. The Novosibirsk Vektor Center for Virology and Biotechnology has isolated and described the virus, and ascertained its characteristics and features. The strains are a carbon copy of those circulating in South East Asia. That is some comfort, because it is not some new "Russian" type of avian influenza, but an already known form.
Today Russia is acquiring its own bitter experience. Everywhere where the virus has been registered is checked for possible cases. Doctors make daily rounds and check local residents. They disinfect suspect places and put animals in quarantine. The Novosibirsk regional governor's administration has said 65,000 heads of domestic fowl will be seized and burned. The state will compensate the owners for all their losses. No one will be permitted to raise new fowl before a period of 21 days elapses. Onishchenko is certain that this set of measures will help stop the bird flu from spreading to other parts of the country.
Scientists have been active in recent years in devising ways of resisting avian influenza. The world has enough capacity to produce vaccines in the event of a pandemic. Leading Russian centers able to develop the vaccine swiftly are situated in Saratov, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Novosibirsk. But epidemics, unfortunately, travel fast and migrate easily, for example, on aircraft.
"The most important task facing the medical profession now is to carry out timely vaccinations, that's the thing," Boyev said.
His institute has developed a mathematical model to forecast the consequences of a bird flu epidemic across Russia that shows how dangerous the disease is for humans. If the bird flu mutates finally and utterly, it will claim the greater part of the global population.
"Mankind's hope," Boyev said, "is that the virus has not yet mutated into a hazardous hybrid, and therefore people cannot infect each other."