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A human outbreak of bird flu in Africa could devastate the campaign to fight HIV by challenging the continent's overburdened health care systems and further damaging economies already hard hit by the epidemic, Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS executive director Peter Piot said in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he is on an inspection mission.
"We are on very thin ice here. AIDS has made a mess of Africa's health care systems, and none of the factors that created the AIDS disaster have gone away," said Piot. "But with bird flu, we could be looking at things getting worse in a matter of months, not decades."
Though no human cases of H5N1 bird flu have been detected in Africa to date, detecting such a case will be challenging because of high mortality rates from other diseases as well as nonexistent health services in rural areas. "Africa is fragile, and this could really overburden its systems," said Piot.
Scientists are studying how bird flu and HIV may interact. Some theorize that immunocompromised HIV patients might die faster in a bird flu outbreak, while others believe that because H5N1 overstimulates the immune response, HIV patients might escape death from the flu but become "supercarriers" that spread the virus.
Piot also expressed concern that precautionary measures against bird flu, such as poultry culls, could devastate the continent. "For many people in Africa, chicken is either the major source of protein or the major source of income. If we try to eliminate chickens, it would be an economic catastrophe, and that has clear implications for AIDS," he said. (Reuters)