A three-year-old boy dies of avian influenza in Hong Kong on May 19, 1997. By the time the outbreak was controlled, six people were dead and 1.6 million domestic fowl were destroyed.
The young boy, the first victim of the flu outbreak, had been hospitalized six days earlier with severe coughing and fever. He had been around chickens that were found to be infected with avian influenza. This virus, identified as flu type A(H5N1), had been found in chickens in March. Other people who worked with the chickens were immediately tested; some tested positive. More disturbingly, a health care worker, a lab technician and a neighbor—all of whom did not deal directly with chickens—also tested positive for this type of flu.
By November, there were 18 recorded cases; six of the victims died. Finally, on December 28, authorities decided that it was necessary to slaughter the chickens and other domestic fowl in Hong Kong to prevent further spread of the disease. About 1.6 million animals were killed and buried. Though no other cases were reported immediately after the slaughter, officials continued to keep an eye on the virus. Over the next eight years, between 1997 and 2005, the H5N1 virus mutated, becoming extraordinarily lethal, and was responsible for 62 more human fatalities in Asia, as well as the deaths of more than 140 million birds, a portion of which were intentionally destroyed in an effort to contain it.
In the fall of 2005, the virus spread suddenly from Asia to Europe. The European debut of the flu, which is much more deadly than the common “seasonal” form that kills about 36,000 Americans annually, sparked concerns that if the virus were to mutate to a form communicable between humans, a devastating pandemic would result. Scientists estimate that as many as 150 million people could die in a few months. As 2005 came to a close, nations around the world, in concert with the World Health Organization, scrambled to assemble viable disaster and containment plans and amass stockpiles of antiviral drugs. Soon after, the virus was found in birds in Africa, but has only been spread to humans who came into close contact the blood, bodily fluid or droppings of infected chickens.