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Avian Flu Unlikely to Spread Through Water Systems

A close relative of the highly pathogenic avian influenza virus (H5N1) can be eliminated by waste and drinking water treatments, including// chlorination, ultraviolet (UV) radiation and bacterial digesters. The virus is harmless to humans but provides a study case of the pathways by which the influenza could spread to human populations.

Cornell researchers studied the related virus, called H5N2, to see whether a hypothetical mutated form of H5N1 could infect people through drinking and wastewater systems. Researchers at Cornell and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point collaborated on the study, published in a recent issue of Environmental Engineering Science.

H5N2, a low-pathogenic avian influenza virus that is not contagious for humans, is physically similar to H5N1, which has been lethal to millions of birds globally and more than half of the almost 200 infected people mostly through handling infected birds, since 2003. Researchers and officials are concerned that if H5N1 mutates to transmit easily between people, a deadly global pandemic could occur.

"It is unknown if H5N1 is more resistant" than H5N2 to procedures used by the water management industry, said Araceli Lucio-Forster, the paper's lead author and a teaching support specialist in Cornell's Department of Microbiology and Immunology. Lucio-Forster will receive her Ph.D. in microbiology from Cornell in January 2007.

Because H5N1 requires high-level biosafety facilities, Lucio-Forster and colleagues used H5N2 as a surrogate virus. Given the similarities between the two viruses, she thinks that if H5N1 entered the water treatment system, "the virus should be inactivated, which means treated water may not be a likely source of transmission," said Lucio-Forster.

Overall, avian flu viruses do not survive well outside of a host. Still, the researchers tried to address concerns in the wastewater-treatment industry that if a human outbreak occurred, co
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