Avian Flu Resistance: Indians should examine their genomics: Virology Expert
Dr. Robert G. Webster

India should look into the genes of its people to see why various strains of avian influenza virus are not affecting them, says an acclaimed American virology scientist.

Several types of avian flu viruses are not creating concern in India as they are in Eurasian countries and North America, points out Dr. Robert G. Webster a World Health Organisation (WHO) expert and Professor at Division of Virology, Department of Infectious Diseases, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, U.S.A.

Dr. Webster was delivering the Foundation Day lecture of the Department of Biotechnology, Govt. of India, hosted by the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology (RGCB), Thiruvananthapuram, the topic being ‘Pandemic and Avian Influenza: the Need for Surveillance in India’.

“When analysing the Genomics of Indians, we may find some special characteristics resisting the disease,” he said.  “But that aspect cannot be interpreted as Indians are not being susceptible to bird flu  viruses because these viruses are constantly mating and ‘reassorting’ to create newer strains. Some of these viruses may attain the capability for a human-to-human infection which can be lethal,” explained the virologist.

Other than H1N1, highly pathogenic subtypes like H5N1 and H7N9 can spread across the borders since in the neighbouring China new viruses and avian flu are constantly evolving, which creates a major concern. Wild birds are crossing the Himalayas to spread the flu in India like the H5N1 attack, he pointed out.

Dr. Webster argued for a universal human vaccination against avian flu as new waves of the disease might occur at any time. Vaccination of the fowl had created terrible problems in many countries, including China.

“Instead of manufacturing huge quantities of vaccine, countries should maintain a seed stock of viruses to manufacture vaccines as and when necessary depending on the nature of flu. Human surveillance in India is satisfactory according to WHO standards.  But it has to be strengthened to include the intermediary hosts like pigs and ducks and to avoid pork and white meat at the time of incidence of the disease,” he noted.

Explaining, he said vaccination for poultry in China is not providing immunity and now they are eliminating poultry markets in Hong Kong and Shanghai, which is a good solution. In Asian countries there is always a tussle between the health and agriculture departments when a ban on poultry markets is advocated, he added. 

Dr.M.Radhakrishna Pillai, Director,  RGCB, welcomed the guest and Dr.K.Santhosh Kumar, Senior scientist proposed a vote of thanks.

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