During the last decade the number of reported outbreaks caused by highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in domestic poultry has drastically increased. At the same time, low pathogenic avian influenza (LPAI) strains, such as H9N2 in many parts of the Middle East and Asia and H6N2 in live bird markets in California, have become endemic. Each AI outbreak brings the concomitant possibility of poultry-to-human transmission. Indeed, human illness and death have resulted from such occasional transmissions with highly pathogenic avian H7N7 and H5N1 viruses while avian H9N2 viruses have been isolated from individuals with mild influenza. The transmission of avian influenza directly from poultry to humans has brought a sense of urgency in terms of understanding the mechanisms that lead to interspecies transmission of influenza. Domestic poultry species have been previously overlooked as potential intermediate hosts in the generation of influenza viruses with the capacity to infect humans. In this review, we will discuss molecular and epidemiological aspects that have led to the recurrent emergence of avian influenza strains with pandemic potential, with a particular emphasis on the current Asian H5N1 viruses.
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