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Clin Microbiol Rev. 2001 Jan;14(1):129-49.

Pandemic threat posed by avian influenza A viruses.

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Department of Veterinary Microbiology, Osaka Prefecture University, Sakai Osaka 599-8531, Japan.


Influenza pandemics, defined as global outbreaks of the disease due to viruses with new antigenic subtypes, have exacted high death tolls from human populations. The last two pandemics were caused by hybrid viruses, or reassortants, that harbored a combination of avian and human viral genes. Avian influenza viruses are therefore key contributors to the emergence of human influenza pandemics. In 1997, an H5N1 influenza virus was directly transmitted from birds in live poultry markets in Hong Kong to humans. Eighteen people were infected in this outbreak, six of whom died. This avian virus exhibited high virulence in both avian and mammalian species, causing systemic infection in both chickens and mice. Subsequently, another avian virus with the H9N2 subtype was directly transmitted from birds to humans in Hong Kong. Interestingly, the genes encoding the internal proteins of the H9N2 virus are genetically highly related to those of the H5N1 virus, suggesting a unique property of these gene products. The identification of avian viruses in humans underscores the potential of these and similar strains to produce devastating influenza outbreaks in major population centers. Although highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses had been identified before the 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong, their devastating effects had been confined to poultry. With the Hong Kong outbreak, it became clear that the virulence potential of these viruses extended to humans.

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