Hello, I'm Mark Pearson. Government reports this week suggested that rising energy costs coupled with a cooling housing market are putting U.S. consumers on the defensive. **Retail sales rose seven-tenths of one percent last month, coming in well below forecasts. Excluding automobiles, retail sales rose just two-tenths of one percent due, in part, to mediocre holiday shopping numbers. ** The Producer Price Index, which measures price pressure at the wholesale level, surged nine-tenths of one percent in December -- it's largest increase since June. ** But there was a glimmer of hope in this week's economic numbers. The U.S. Trade Deficit declined by nearly 6 percent last month thanks, in part, to record U.S. exports. Agriculture ranks among the most trade-sensitive industries. So, it's no surprise that experts are keeping a close eye on the Avian flu outbreak in parts of Asia and Europe. But officials are even more concerned about the life-threatening potential of the virus for humans.
Though the total number of reported human bird flu cases has crested at slightly above 140, the various world health agencies have not dropped their guard. Scientists are still warning of the possibility of the deadly H5N1 virus mutating and starting a pandemic.
Dr. David Nabarro, World Health Organization: There is no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission of the bird flu virus at this time. However, and this is the big however, we have to be always on the alert to make sure that human-to-human transmission hasn't started.
The damage to more than just "producer pocket- books" is yet to be calculated. Millions of birds have been destroyed across Asia and Eastern Europe. Cases of bird flu have been found everywhere from Japan to Romania and Croatia to Turkey.
Health officials in those countries have begun to take a closer look at how all birds are transported. Warnings have gone out telling everyone to wash their hands after handling live birds. There has been an increase in inspections and preemptive bird culls. And the European Union has restricted imports from Turkey as well as the surrounding six countries. Turkey is considered by many as the land bridge between Europe and Asia.
As the virus begins to creep farther west there have been stories of individuals that have been cured of H5N1 with Tamiflu. Several countries, including the U.S., have been stockpiling the wonder drug in case the worst occurs. Health officials have been careful to state that Tamiflu, and its competitor Relenza, have to be taken within a few days of contracting the virus for the drug to have maximum effectiveness.
Another new theory being touted about the potency of H5N1 comes from Sweden. Doctors at a university hospital believe the suspect killer flu-strain may not be as deadly as was first believed. The single study, which is not definitive, indicates that more people may have become ill with the virus but only had mild symptoms. Because the weaker cases were not reported only the most severe have received attention. More than half of all known instances have ended in death. University doctors in the United States point out that 36 thousand people will die from conventional human flu this year.
Despite the potential bright spot, the World Health Organization warns that the chance of the H5N1 virus mutating increases as more people are infected. So far, almost all of the cases have been caused by the victims handling infected birds or being exposed to their feces.