How deadly is bird flu?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization, say that H5N1 bird flu kills some 60% of the human beings it manages to infect. Basically, it hasn't infected many people—because it can't be spread from person to person—but most of the people it does infect die.

But this might not be the full story.

After I posted a summary of the current controversies surrounding H5N1 research, I got an interesting email from Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology at Columbia University Medical Center. Racaniello points out that the 60% death rate statistics are based on people who show up at hospitals with serious symptoms of infection. So far, there've only been about 600 cases. And, yes, about 60% of them have died.

However, they don't necessarily represent everybody who has contracted H5N1.

A death rate is only as good as statistics on the rate of infection. If you've got an inaccurate count of the number of people infected, your death rate is going to be wrong. And there's some evidence that might be the case with H5N1.

In a recent study of rural Thai villagers, sera from 800 individuals were collected and analyzed for antibodies against several avian influenza viruses, including H5N1, by hemagglutination-inhibition and neutralization assays. The results indicate that 73 participants (9.1%) had antibody titers against one of two different H5N1 strains. The authors conclude that ‘people in rural central Thailand may have experienced subclinical avian influenza virus infections’. A subclinical infection is one without apparent signs of illness.

If 9% of the rural Asian population has been subclinically infected with avian H5N1 influenza virus strains, it would dramatically change our view of the pathogenicity of the virus. Extensive serological studies must be done to determine the extent of human infection with avian H5N1 influenza viruses. Until we know how many individuals are infected with avian influenza H5N1, we must refrain from making dire conclusions about the pathogenicity of the virus.