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Bird watcher

Medicine | Governments around the world are preparing for the possibility that bird flu will mutate into a disease that humans can give to one another

Issue: "Meltdown," April 22, 2006

Most English-speaking countries expected bird flu to cross their borders, but the disease's arrival in Scotland on March 29 shocked at least one resident into paranoia. Members of the British press at first thought professional soccer coach Jose Mourinho was being sarcastic when he said last week that he feared bird flu more than the rival club Manchester United.

"You are laughing, but I am serious," said Mr. Mourinho, coach of the Chelsea Football Club. "What is football compared with life? A swan with bird flu, for me, that is the drama of the last two days. I have to buy some masks and stuff."

A reminder for Mr. Mourinho and anyone wondering whether a case of the sniffles might be bird flu: H5N1, the strain of avian influenza making its way across the globe, is a bird disease. Humans can get it, but only if they are bitten by or come in contact with the feces of infected birds. You could not get it from eating properly cooked poultry, even if the poultry were infected. Governments around the world are preparing for the possibility that H5N1 will mutate into a disease that humans can give to each other. No one knows if or when that will happen.

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Also, contrary to Mr. Mourinho's fears, masks of any kind are ineffective at preventing H5N1 in humans, since no human is known to have contracted it by breathing the air in which infected birds fly.

Midwest mumps

Until this year, more people in the United States could be struck by lightning than on average would come down with the mumps. So why, all of a sudden, is the virus attacking young, healthy, and mostly vaccinated people in the Midwest? Four months into a mumps epidemic, public-health officials still are guessing.

Doctors first noticed a surge of mumps cases among college students in eastern Iowa at the end of last year. As of April 10, Iowa had reported 515 cases. Cases also were reported in Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin.

At least 81 percent of the people infected in Iowa had received the MMR vaccine against mumps. Another 15 percent might have had the shot, but did not have records to prove it. According to a Centers for Disease Control survey, the 2004 rate of toddler MMR vaccination was 93 percent nationwide-an increase over 10 years despite now-disproved fears that the vaccine caused autism.

The Iowa Department of Public Health reported that its strain of mumps is the same as a similar epidemic in Great Britain in 2005. That strain is covered by the MMR, but the vaccine is only 95 percent effective. The good news is that while mumps causes swollen saliva glands and pain in the jaw and throat, it rarely leads to death. Everyone infected in the Midwest this year has survived.

Making the Rounds

News that scientists had made working replacement bladders out of patients' own cells recently bolstered the pro-life case against embryonic stem-cell research. A Wake Forest University research team announced on April 3 it had treated complications of spina bifida by replacing part of its patients' bladders with lab-grown ones.

Many scientists believe that stem cells from embryos will help them regenerate healthy, rejection-proof tissue for transplants. The argument that they can discover the same treatments, as the Wake Forest team did, without killing embryos may not sway those scientists. Even Anthony Atala, the lead investigator on the bladder-engineering study, sees no reason why adult and embryonic stem-cell research should not continue side by side.

He participated in a study reported in 2004 in which researchers generated retinal cells from human embryonic stem cells. The institute he directs at Wake Forest collaborates with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, one of the country's most vocal supporters of embryonic stem-cell research. Mr. Atala recently told author Christopher Thomas Scott, "I have one goal. To cure the patient."

Lynde Langdon
Lynde Langdon

Lynde lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. She holds degrees from the University of Missouri in journalism, Russian, and business administration. She is in a long-term, committed relationship with the Lutheran church. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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