In general, Americans have had a mild flu season this year. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in its weekly FluView Surveillance Report that, for the first time this season, more than 10% of respiratory specimens collected in the U.S. tested positive for the flu -- 10.5%, versus 7.6% the prior week. According to the CDC, surpassing 10% is considered an indication that "flu season is beginning."
Also this week, California became the first state to report widespread flu activity this season. The FluView summary also stated that "Further increases in activity are expected in the coming weeks." Currently, the prevalent flu strain in the U.S. is influenza A (H3N2), but the number of cases of 2009 H1N1 viruses -- also known as swine flu -- has been increasing. All of the flu strains detected can be treated with antiviral drugs, the CDC said.
In the meantime, researchers and policy makers prepared to discuss how to proceed with research into the transmissibility of H5N1, the bird flu that has ravaged flocks in Asia and the Middle East and has killed several hundred people around the world.
Bird flu is deadly, but does not pass easily between mammals. But when two groups of scientists engineered H5N1 strains that did have the ability to transmit between mammals through the air, some began to worry. What if their recipe for the killer strain got into the wrong hands? Would the world face a deadly pandemic?
A U.S. government advisory board recommended that scientific journals refrain from publishing the work, and the journals and scientists went along, eventually agreeing to a 60-day moratorium on further H5N1 research until interested parties could meet to discuss the best way to move ahead with research without endangering the public health.
The first meeting in that discussion, organized by officials at the World Health Organization, will take place Thursday and Friday, officials at the health agency said.
Twenty-two people will participate in the closed-door sessions, which are intended to "try to reach a consensus about ad hoc, practical actions to resolve the most urgent issues, particularly related to access to and dissemination of the results" of the H5N1 papers.
Talks will continue throughout the coming months, said people familiar with the situation.
For a taste of the debate over H5N1 research, check out the links to Los Angeles Times coverage provided at the left. Also, on Feb. 2 the New York Academy of Sciences hosted a forum to discuss the controversy. The World Health Organization's position statement on H5N1 research is available on the Web.