A possibly dangerous genetic mutation in the avian flu virus has doctors in Turkey concerned. The European Union, meanwhile, has promised more than $100 million to aid the global fight against the spread of the flu.
Gathering and killing large numbers of birds is one the few options to fight virus mutation
The World Health Organization reported the mutation in the H5N1 virus after detecting it in the DNA of two Turkish patients on Friday. Though the mutation allows the virus to adapt more easily to humans than to birds, experts said it was too early for widespread concern.
"It's a single discovery, which appearing isolated in a virus is not of much importance at the moment," said Dr. Christian Drosten, a virologist at the Bernhardt-Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg in an interview. "Such single mutations don't indicate whether a virus has gotten more dangerous."
Test developed to detect mutations
The report nevertheless raised the caution level. The flu epidemic of 1918, which killed tens of millions of people in a span of 18 months, jumped directly from birds to humans, according to researchers at the Scripps Research Institute in California. Scientists and health care officials have watched the avian flu in Turkey warily for signs of the same.
The virus has yet to jump from birds to humans in large numbers
Scripps scientists announced this week that they had developed a test to detect such mutations, warning health officials when the virus might jump ship from birds to humans. At the moment, the H5N1 strain of the virus still primarily infects birds and only rarely passes to people.
Since late 2003, more than 70 people have been killed by the strain as it spread from Asia to Europe. Two have died in Turkey and 15 have been infected since the beginning of the year, bringing the flu to Europe's doorstep and prompting a host of monitoring measures from European governments in recent days.
Virus showing no major changes
On Friday, the EU pledged $100 million (82.6 million euros) in aid to go toward stopping the spread of the virus, and Turkey stepped up bird inspections. Doctors on Friday said they were testing whether the death of a 4-year-old girl in eastern Turkey was caused by the virus.
Avian flu is on Europe's doorstep
Drosten, the Berlin scientist, said the development of the virus in Turkey in the coming weeks will give scientists ideas on how to combat it. At the moment, the virus is behaving the same way as it did in Hong Kong three years ago, where only the people who had contact with infected birds were themselves infected.
He said mutations are difficult to combat.
"What you can do is to suppress the process by which mutations come about - the replication," he said. "In the case of H5N1, that means eliminating the masses of replicated viruses by killing the infected birds."