Influenza viruses with novel hemagglutinin and 1 or more accompanying genes derived from avian influenza viruses sporadically emerge in humans and have the potential to result in a pandemic if the virus causes disease and spreads efficiently in a population that lacks immunity to the novel hemagglutinin. Since 1997, multiple avian influenza virus subtypes have been transmitted directly from domestic poultry to humans and have caused a spectrum of human disease, from asymptomatic to severe and fatal. To assess the pandemic risk that avian influenza viruses pose, we have used multiple strategies to better understand the capacity of avian viruses to infect, cause disease, and transmit among mammals, including humans. Seroepidemiologic studies that evaluate the frequency and risk of human infection with avian influenza viruses in populations with exposure to domestic or wild birds can provide a better understanding of the pandemic potential of avian influenza subtypes. Investigations conducted in Hong Kong following the first H5N1 outbreak in humans in 1997 determined that exposure to poultry in live bird markets was a key risk factor for human disease. Among poultry workers, butchering and exposure to sick poultry were risk factors for antibody to H5 virus, which provided evidence for infection. A second risk assessment tool, the ferret, can be used to evaluate the level of virulence and potential for host-to-host transmission of avian influenza viruses in this naturally susceptible host. Avian viruses isolated from humans exhibit a level of virulence and transmissibility in ferrets that generally reflects that seen in humans. The ferret model thus provides a means to monitor emerging avian influenza viruses for pandemic risk, as well as to evaluate laboratory-generated reassortants and mutants to better understand the molecular basis of influenza virus transmissibility. Taken together, such studies provide valuable information with which we can assess the public health risk of avian influenza viruses.
Immunology and Pathogenesis Branch, Influenza Division, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA 30333, USA. JKatz@cdc.gov, , , , , ,