The reason? There are several social and ecological factors that promote - or hamper — the spread of the virus, found the study, the first-ever statistical analysis of H5N1’s genetic diversity.
The study, whose findings appear in the latest issue of the journal PloS, could help scientists understand how the virus migrates and enable health officials to determine whether efforts to thwart its spread were successful.
“Learning that is a good step in discovering which social and ecological factors promote, or, on the other hand, hamper the virus’ spread,” said Robert G. Wallace, co-author of the study.
Wallace and fellow author Walter M Fitch, analysed nearly 500 publicly available genetic sequences of proteins found on the surface of the influenza virus
The researchers suggest that health officials trying to block new strains of the virus from spreading could use the methods employed in this study to determine whether their interventions are working.
“You can think of it as a type of evolutionary forensics,” Wallace said “Here we can determine the way H5N1 has spread and evolved by the resulting viral diversity.”
These sequences were originally collected from 28 Eurasian and African localities in 2006.
The researchers noted that more than 60 percent of humans who contract the virus died from it. Since its emergence in 1996, H5N1 has only sporadically been passed from birds to humans.
Although about 350 human cases have been recorded worldwide, high mortality rate raises concerns about its mutating in a manner that humans can pass it on, which may result in a deadly flu pandemic.