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International News

AIDS May Help Spread of Bird Flu

November 18, 2005

At a conference organized by the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, experts warned that HIV/AIDS patients could harbor the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu, potentially allowing the virus to become more adaptable and thus more dangerous to humans.

Currently, H5N1 has infected about 125 people in Southeast Asia, most of whom have had close contact with infected birds. Experts are concerned that the widespread infection of birds in this region, combined with the close mixing of birds and people, could help the virus become more easily transmissible.

The turning point, said Dr. Robert Webster of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, could be when H5N1 reaches East Africa, where HIV/AIDS is rampant. East Africa is the final destination for many birds currently migrating from infected areas.

Webster said in working with cancer patients with depressed immune systems, he had found they are unable to clear normal flu virus from their bodies and can shed copies of the virus for weeks. He fears the same would happen to H5N1-infected AIDS patients. "We're all very worried by the prospect," said Webster. Reproducing over an extended period of time inside the human body would create ideal conditions for H5N1 to become more infectious.

With HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria already widespread in Africa, it would be difficult to single out bird flu symptoms -- high fever and nausea -- in patients, said health expert Laurie Garrett.

However, it is not clear what the direct effect of H5N1 would be on HIV/AIDS patients. H5N1 over-stimulates the immune system, and much of its dangerous effects are caused by immune molecules excited by the disease in what experts term a "cytokine storm" -- the effect that made the 1918 flu strain so deadly. "In that situation, vast populations of HIV-positive people could be obliterated by the pandemic flu," Garrett said.

Back to other news for November 18, 2005

Adapted from:
BBC News
11.17.2005; Roland Pease

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This article was provided by CDC National Prevention Information Network. It is a part of the publication CDC HIV/Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update.
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