Flu Fighters


By Wendy Melillo

Published Oct 1, 2006 12:00 AM

If — some say when — bird flu comes to the U.S., it will spread across the country in weeks. UCLA is among those helping to prepare for and protect us from a possible pandemic. Can the FLU FIGHTERS get the country and the campus ready in time?

In August, Indonesia earned the dark distinction of suffering the most bird-flu fatalities in the world, 43 and counting, after a 16-year-old Indonesian boy died from avian flu two days after being admitted to the hospital. Since 2003, 232 people around the world have been struck with the virus, and 134 have died.

Because it remains difficult for the virus to migrate from birds to humans, and even more difficult to transfer from person to person, many scientists still feel a bird-flu pandemic is not imminent. Some researchers, though, are far less sanguine about the potential threat. And a few are convinced a crisis is all but upon us.

Why does a disease that can't migrate easily to humans scare so many smart scientists? Because if it does, there'll be hell to pay.

"Seasonal flu, the kind we see every year, causes 36,000 deaths across the country every year and hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations," says Jo Ann Dawson M.P.H. '88, interim director and staff physician at UCLA's Arthur Ashe Student Health and Wellness Center, and co-chairperson of the university's Pandemic Flu Task. "But what if we get a virus that is particularly contagious has a high attack rate and is lethal, in a population with little or no immunity to it? … This flu infecting chickens now has the potential for that kind of mutation."