A villager reading a notice about the dangers of the avian flu H5N1 in Kampung Pulau Tebu in Tunjong, Kota Baru, yesterday. PIC BY SYAMSI SUHAIMI

Avian influenza, or bird flu, the influenza caused by virus adapted to birds, or the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain, has been detected among chickens at a backyard farm in a village in Kelantan, forcing farmers to cull their flocks on instruction from the Veterinary Services Department. Containing the virus is urgent because if allowed to mutate, it can cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a very dangerous disease that spreads quickly. This is the greatest fear. The 2013 SARS outbreak, which began in Asia, for example, travelled swiftly worldwide, infecting more than 8,000 people, causing 774 deaths. Hence, the decision to quickly cull the chickens in the village. More than 1,000 poultry birds have been culled within a 2km radius of the affected areas. With such a history, naturally, the world keeps itself alert to possible outbreaks, as is the case currently, which began in Cambodia some weeks back. It is also important to note that the bird flu itself can cause death.

While a vaccine exists, the stock is not expected to be adequate to prevent a massive epidemic. Therefore, general prevention is important. Basic personal hygiene, like keeping hands clean after contact with sufferers, is essential because once transferred to humans, infection spreads through contact. Like all viral infections, there is no real treatment available. That is why prevention is the only way to avoid infection. Those infected must do their part by making sure not to sneeze or cough into others’ faces by covering the mouth or turning away. Better still, use a mask. When cooking poultry, make sure that the meat is properly cooked.

There were earlier incidents of the spread of the infection in the country. The H1N1 strain of the flu broke out in August 2009, causing well over 2,000 cases, 78 of them fatal. It was imported from infected countries, including the United States and Australia. In 2004, the first H5N1— the strain found currently — outbreak in Malaysia occurred. Significantly, records show that containment of the different strains in Malaysia has been relatively effective. If the measures now undertaken is anything to go by, it is no surprise. Meanwhile, another strain, H7N9 — an unusually dangerous virus to humans — was detected in February 2014, but according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there has not been sustained human-to-human spread.

Historically, WHO statistics show that Malaysia has been comparatively safe, but as with the observation made of the H7N9 entry into the country, the absence of cases is no reason for complacency. For instance, the H5N1 strain has been around since 1996 and, with few respites, it has been travelling the world, visiting some countries more often than others. Even without epidemics, its toll on Indonesia, say, from 2005 to 2012, was 184 cases reported, with fatalities. The inference here is obvious: once arrived, the virus seems ever present, lurking in the background waiting to attack. Given that prevention is the only protection against infection, Malaysians must maintain a high level of hygiene and visit the doctor when symptoms appear.

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