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NMSU researcher wants to know what the U.S. can learn from Egyptian bird flu

Tens of thousands of people die from various forms the flu each year, but gaining a better understanding of how the disease spreads - especially in some of its most infectious strains - may help bring those numbers down. At least that's the hope of one researcher at New Mexico State University.



Susan Wilson hopes to gain a better understanding of how the flu spreads by studying the prevalence of the avian flu in Egypt. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Susan Wilson, an associate health science professor at NMSU has studied avian influenza, also known H5N1, for the past few years. She's most interested in how H5N1 spreads in Egypt, and why women and children are disproportionally affected in that country. At a conference earlier this year, she presented a model that looks at the various environmental and behavioral interactions that facilitate the spread of bird flu. Her graduate assistant, Noha Oushy, co-authored their published paper.

"Egypt is second in the world in the number of human cases of bird flu," Wilson said. "They're also third in the world for the number of deaths caused by the disease."

Avian influenza kills domestic poultry, particularly chickens. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, H5N1-infected animals have been reported in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, Europe and the Near East. The disease is also highly pathogenic, meaning it is easily transmitted between sick birds and from sick birds to humans who come in close contact. The H5N1 virus does not transfer from person-to-person as seasonal flu does, but requires direct contact with sick birds for humans to contract the disease.

"At this point, this form of avian influenza isn't in the Western Hemisphere. Hopefully, we don't get it in our avian population. We have a lot of people who raise their own poultry," Wilson said.

Wilson's model looks at how the natural environment, the urban and human-developed environment, the sociopolitical and economic environments and the cultural environments are all connected and influence the spread of the disease. She said in countries like Egypt, women and children are more likely to tend chickens and, therefore, more likely to come in contact with H5N1.

Wilson said that while many countries are trying to educate their populations about diseases and how they are transmitted, H5N1, and how it is spread, isn't well understood among Egyptian women. Her research suggests that it's the increase in exposure opportunities, along with a "lack of knowledge, traditional daily activities, poultry practices and child-rearing activities" that increase the chance of death from bird flu in Egypt.

"This is an unusual epidemiological footprint," she said. "When you look at the environmental model, it can vary from place to place."

Wilson hopes a better understanding of the disease, and how it spreads in other countries, can help community health workers in the U.S., and elsewhere, better educate the public.