All strains of influenza virus started originally from birds. The strains mutate slightly each year. That is why we need new vaccines. Lots of people die from various flu strains every year. Around one million people per year die around the world and 36,000 per year in the U.S.
What everyone is calling Avian Flu right now is a strain that originated in Vietnam in 1997. It is called “H5N1”. It moved west in migrating bird populations. It has moved in the “flyways”, the migratory populations of birds. It has, therefore, gone from Vietnam to the following countries that have reported human infections: China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, to Russia and now beyond. It has been found in humans in Turkey and Iraq. The wild birds sometimes pass the virus to domesticated birds, such as chickens. There a many more countries who have reported cases in birds, such as Nigeria and Ukraine.
130 humans worldwide have been infected with this virus since 1997. Half of them have died. That is what is causing concern. The death rate is normally very low. In fact, the Spanish flu that killed half a million people in the U.S. and 50 million people worldwide in 1918 had only a two percent mortality rate. One reason this strain is more deadly is that it strikes deep in the lungs. Treatment is more difficult.
The problem will come, if at all, if the Avian flu mutates so that it spreads from human to human. Then the number of cases will rise quickly and dramatically and cause a crisis.
Tamiflu and other existing medications will cure the Avian flu. However, there is a limited supply. This is because the FDA standards for safety screening are costly and time consuming. The number of companies making vaccines for flu has dropped from 26 fifty years ago, including 10 in the U.S. alone, to two world wide, one in the U.S. and one in France. The other problem is lawsuits which have driven up the cost.