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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Asia travel spurs concerns about Avian flu

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Department of Health is asking physicians to be on the lookout for a strain of influenza that circulates among birds, but can infect humans.

There have been widespread outbreaks of Avian flu in poultry this year in China, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Thirty-four human cases, including three deaths, have been reported in Thailand and Vietnam.

Although there have been no documented cases of Avian flu in Hawai'i, health officials want doctors to be on the alert because of the large number of people who travel from Asia to the state.

The symptoms are similar to typical flu viruses that hit humans, but could be more severe, said Dr. Sarah Park, Health Department spokeswoman. Park said no one is sure how humans are infected with the virus, but the people who have been diagnosed with Avian flu have been in close contact with contaminated birds.

"When they get it, it's pretty serious and sometimes fatal," Park said. She said it is "extremely rare" for the Avian flu to be transmitted among humans.

If someone goes to the doctor or emergency room with flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, fatigue, dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, and muscle aches, the Health Department is asking that a critical exam be done to include that person's recent travel history.

"We're asking the physicians to just consider that possibility, recognizing that the possibility is probably going to be very small," Park said.

She said there is a concern among scientists because pigs have been diagnosed with the Avian flu. Park said this indicates that the bird flu virus has the capability of sharing genes with another type of flu.

"If a human flu virus and a bird flu virus got together and shared genes then we would be in big trouble because then we'd have the case where the bird flu virus becomes much more common among humans," Park said. "It's devastating among birds so you can imagine what that means for humans."

For information on countries affected by the Avian flu, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site at www.cdc.gov/flu.

Reach Curtis Lum at 525-8025 or culum@honoluluadvertiser.com.