WEDNESDAY, June 11, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Flu viruses currently circulating in birds closely resemble the one that caused the 1918 pandemic that killed about 50 million people worldwide, researchers say.
Only a few differences separate proteins in current flu viruses found in birds and proteins in the virus that caused the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the investigators found. This suggests that a similar deadly virus could emerge in the near future, according to the authors of the study published June 11 in the journal Cell Host & Microbe.
It would take just a few mutations for one of the current bird flu viruses to become as deadly and infectious as the 1918 virus, according to the researchers.
"Because avian [bird] influenza viruses in nature require only a few changes to adapt to humans and cause a pandemic, it is important to understand the mechanisms involved in adaptation and identify the key mutations so we can be better prepared," senior author Yoshihiro Kawaoka, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a journal news release. "Our findings demonstrate the value of continued surveillance of avian influenza viruses and reinforce the need for improved influenza vaccines and antivirals to prepare for such a scenario."