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Avian Influenza: What Steps Can You Take?

by Julia Pendower(more info)

listed in medical conditions, originally published in issue 123 - May 2006

Amidst all the press coverage and conflicting information about Bird Flu or H5N1 Avian Influenza, people are concerned and wondering just what the facts really are, and what they can do to help themselves.

So let's set the facts straight. Avian H5N1 influenza is a disease of birds. However, this particular virus has shown that it can infect humans, but only when they are in close contact with infected birds. As of the beginning of March, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has officially confirmed 174 cases of human infection with 94 deaths,[1] so this is still a very hard and difficult disease to catch. The fear is, what happens if the virus mutates so that it can become easily infectious to, and between, humans?

No one can say with any certainty if, or when this might happen, nor how severe the resulting pandemic would be.[2] However, the risk is real, and the rapid spread of the disease in birds across the Asian, African, Indian and European continents increases the possibility that, at some time, a human form may occur. As no-one has immunity to this virus, a pandemic variant would cause widespread infections and possibly, death. If it were to follow a pattern similar to the great pandemic of 1918, we can expect several waves of infection in a pandemic that could last up to 2 years.

The government has stated that a pandemic vaccine won't be available for six months after a pandemic virus has emerged. The UK will have enough of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu to treat 25% of the population with a single course of treatment by August 2006. Clearly, there may not be sufficient anti-viral drugs to treat everybody as the pandemic runs its course. So is this all that we can do? No.

Because infection with this virus can cause a severe immune over-reaction where the body attacks itself (termed a "cytokine storm"), experts are rightly cautious at recommending natural remedies that stimulate the immune response.[3] Until proper trial work is carried out in living systems infected with the H5N1 virus, no-one can know if many of the "main stays" of alternative therapy will help or make matters worse in the treatment of pandemic influenza.

What is self evident is that surviving and recovering from a human form of avian influenza infection will be dependent on our general state of health. This is something we all have control over now; we are all empowered to change how we live our lives, and to take steps immediately to ensure that we are healthy as possible. This will almost certainly positively benefit lives, even if the pandemic never happens.

If you smoke, stop. Avian influenza attacks the lungs and can cause viral pneumonia,[4] so having healthy lungs increases your chances of recovery if you are infected. If you are overweight, go on a diet and take up regular exercise. Pay attention to your diet, and make sure you are eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day, and preferably nine. Eat fish for essential fatty acids and vitamin D, and get plenty of sunshine. Add nutritional supplements to bring you up to the amounts of essential nutrients needed for optimal health.

In the case of the avian influenza threat, it isn't just about being as healthy as you can with a strong immune system; it is also about ensuring that you have an immune system that works properly, and one that is able to regulate itself properly when challenged by a virus. Without exception, all treatments can only help to limit the amount of virus in your body. Getting rid of the virus and overcoming it is up to your immune system, so it needs to function properly.

In a number of studies, Vitamin C supplementation has been demonstrated to reduce the risk of developing pneumonia by a massive 80-100%,[5] which may be particularly important in Avian Flu infection. Zinc as the metallo-ion[6] is essential for normal immune system function,[7] but in the UK most of us fail to achieve the Recommended Daily Amount of 15mg per day,[8] let alone the 160% of RDA for optimal immune system function. High levels of cereals in the diet[9] and a low consumption of red meats[10] means that many people are unable to absorb enough zinc from their food.

A zinc deficiency causes poor immune system modulation and immune suppression, and can increase the severity and duration of a viral infection. Zinc potentiates the effects of specific antiviral cytokines,[11] and helps switch off the body¡¦s production of cytokines when the levels get too high.

If a pandemic happens, it will happen swiftly and with little warning. Taking measures such as those described above now will benefit your health generally, and may help you through a pandemic infection in the future, if it occurs. As scientists learn more about other interventions, this list will be added to; for now, these are sensible steps for everyone to take.


1. WHO website: Cumulative number of confirmed human cases 1 March 2006.
2. World Health Organization. Avian influenza: assessing the pandemic threat. WHO, Geneva. 62 pp. 2005.
3. Cheung CY, Poon LL, Lau AS, Luk W, Lau YL, Shortridge KF, Gordon S, Guan Y, Peiris JS. Induction of proinflammatory cytokines in
human macrophages by influenza A (H5N1) viruses: a mechanism for the unusual severity of human disease? Lancet. 360(9348): 1831-7. 2002.
4. Chan MCW, Cheung CY, Chui WH, Tsao SW, Nicholls JM, Chan YO, Chan RWY, Long HT, Poon LLM, Guan Y, Peiris JSM. Proinflammatory cytokine responses induced by influenza A (H5N1) viruses in primary human alveolar and bronchial epithelial cells. Respiratory Research 6:135 [electronic pre-publication version, 6/1/135]. 2005.
5. Key review on vitamin C by Hemilä in Military Medicine. Full paper: 2004.
6. Eby GA. Zinc ion availability –  the determinant of efficacy in zinc lozenge treatment of common colds. Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. 40 (4): 483-93. 1997.
7. Ibs KH, Rink L. Zinc-altered immune function. Journal of Nutrition. 133 (5 Suppl 1): 1452S-6S. 2003.
8. Food Standards Agency. The National Diet & Nutrition Survey: adults aged 19 to 64 years. Vitamin and Mineral Intakes and Urinary Analytes. Vol 3. 160 pp. 2003.
9. Lonnerdal B. Dietary factors influencing zinc absorption. Journal of Nutrition. 130 (5S Suppl): 1378S-83S. 2000.
10. Richardson NJ. UK consumer perceptions of meat. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 53; 281-287. 1994.
11. Berg K, Bolt G, Andersen H, Owen TC. Zinc potentiates the antiviral action of human IFN-alpha tenfold. Journal of Interferon Cytokine Research. 21(7): 471-4. 2001.


Julia Pendower would like to thank Dr Robert Verkerk and the ANH Expert Committee for their inputs and research for the production of this column.


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About Julia Pendower

Julia Pendower BSc MCIM DipM is a Nutritional Biochemist for Vibrant Life Ltd and a Director of Influcare Ltd. Julia also acts as a Consultant to the Alliance for Natural Health and campaigns independently to positively shape emerging legislation governing nutritional therapy and health, to help safeguard this sector for the future. Julia can be contacted at Vibrant Life on Tel: 01306 646520;

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