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When Fluffy Catches the Bird Flu
By Randy Dotinga
02:00 AM Jun, 26, 2006
Among household pets, cats and birds seem to pose the most danger as potential transmitters of epidemic disease. In Germany, a cat's death from avian flu earlier this year sparked the government to warn people to keep their cats inside and not to sleep with them.
The trend to get rid of cats is especially strong in Germany and Austria, where at least six cats and a few rodents, like martens, were found to be infected with a strain of avian flu as a result of close contact with infected birds.
The first cases of the H5N1 virus in felines were reported in 2004 in Thailand, where 14 cats died after eating the remains of infected birds. Tigers and leopards at a Thai zoo were also infected through similar means.
In the laboratory tests conducted by Osterhaus's team, cats fed infected meat contracted the disease and transmitted it to other cats in the same cage through their breath.
One theory is that the virus strain originated at Fort Riley, Kansas, by two genetic mechanisms — genetic drift and antigenic shift — in viruses in poultry and swine which the fort bred for local consumption. But evidence from a recent reconstruction of the virus suggests that it jumped directly from birds to humans, without traveling through swine.
Avian flu tends to kill younger people, much as the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic did, the World Health Organization said in an analysis of more than 200 cases.
Bird flu case in Thai dog raises questions about infection
“This is the third species or fourth species that has been infected by eating carcasses. So I think we really have to think about the risk of oral ingestion,” said Michael Perdue, an avian flu expert with the WHO's global influenza program. ...“I mean, these guys are getting infected somehow and we don't know how.”
Since H5N1 flared up in Asia in late 2003, tigers, leopards, domestic cats and now dogs have become infected with the virus by eating infected chicken or duck carcasses. Other mammals — a stone marten, and a small number of pigs — have also been shown to be susceptible to infection, though in those cases the mode of transmission isn't yet documented.
There have also been some human cases where it's thought ingestion of virus was the mode of infection — most notably a trio of brothers in Vietnam who fell ill after eating uncooked soup made from duck's blood. ...Influenza infection occurs in the respiratory tract, when the mucous membranes of the nose and throat come in contact with viruses propelled through the air by sneezes and coughs. A person can also become infected by touching items onto which viruses have been sneezed and then touch their nose or mouth. ...It's not thought that infection can occur in the human gastrointestinal tract. And the WHO's official position is that there is no evidence people can become infected by eating properly cooked poultry or eggs.