Brussels, 17 Mar 2003
Scientists from the Netherlands have warned that if the avian flu virus currently affecting the country encounters human influenza, it could crossbreed to form a human pathogen for which people have no antibodies.
A number of farm workers involved in the culling of more than half a million birds have already contracted conjunctivitis, an eye infection, as a result of contact with infected chickens. Virologists are worried that, with the flu season already underway, the bird virus could crossbreed with human influenza to form a virulent new strain.
'We absolutely do not want to see human flu evolve from the avian virus,' Albert Osterhaus from Erasmus University in Rotterdam told the journal New Scientist. 'If a human virus emerged with surface proteins from the avian virus, there would be no antibodies to it in the population.
'The chances of this are low,' he continued. 'But in theory this could create a pandemic flu virus.' As a precaution, people with flu symptoms have been banned from working with infected birds.