Bird flu take an increasing toll but the world escaped an immediate influenza pandemic, U.N. bird flu chief says

More than 30 countries reported outbreaks of bird flu this year and the number of people dying every month is increasing, but the world escaped an immediate influenza pandemic possibly because of the energetic global response to warnings a year ago, the U.N. bird flu chief said Monday.

Dr. David Nabarro said his warning last year that a mutation of the virulent H5N1 virus which has ravaged poultry stocks since late 2003 could appear anytime and cause an influenza pandemic in humans that kills millions of people was not "overblown."

"There will be an influenza pandemic one day. I don't know — you don't know — when it will be. When it does come along, it will have really major economic and social consequences," he said.

"The one absolutely requirement for this is that we have to get prepared."
The H5N1 virus has affected poultry all over the world except the Western hemisphere and has killed tens of millions of chickens, ducks, geese and other birds, Nabarro told a news conference.

"In 2006, we did see more than 30 countries reporting outbreaks," he said. "Unfortunately, the virus continues to affect humans — with 256 people known to be affected and 151 dying" since 2003.

"The trendline is that the number of deaths per month seems to be increasing at the momnt globally ... and that is primarily because of quite a lot of human death in Indonesia," he said.

Nabarro estimated that the H5N1 avian influenza virus will remain a major animal health issue for most of the world for at least five years, and perhaps 10 years, because it is very virulent but at the same time can survive in certain communities of birds without symptons for long periods.

In addition, he said, bird flu seems to be spread by a combination of wild birds that migrate and trade in infected birds.

One key to tackling bird flu is to change the way people and countries raise chickens and ducks and experts believe it will take five to 10 years to change poultry rearing practices, especially in countries where poultry is plentiful and birds are kept in the backyard, Nabarro said.

While the Western hemisphere has escaped bird flu so far, Nabarro urged countries in the Americas to be be very vigilant in the coming winter months when birds start migrating south from Alaska, through the Mississippi River area and then south. He said countries on another migratory route south from Siberia to the Ukraine, the Black Sea and the Middle East must also be on alert for infected birds.

Nabarro said that in his entire career he had never seen a greater concerted global effort to tackle an issue than he had this year in fighting bird flu and preparing for an influenza pandemic.

"Government ministers are all aware it is their responsibility to prepare for the possibilty of a pandemic and get on top of the avian influenza ... and they're doing it really very energetically," he said.

There have been "huge efforts" by governments in many countries to stop trade in birds which might be infected by H5N1, to restrict movements, to keep different groups of birds apart, and to cull birds when outbreaks occur, he said.

That means many governments now know how to deal with outbreaks, Nabarro said, "and that's a really excellent thing and may well have reduced the probability of pandemic happening immediately, and may well have reduced the probability of H5N1 causing the pandemic."

"But we are never going to drop our vigilance within the U.N. on this issue," he said.
Nabarro said he looked at the present time "as a wonderful breathing space in which we can get prepared so that when the pandemic comes we can deal with it."

He called for stepped up assistance, especially for Indonesia and Africa.
Indonesia accounts for about a third of the human deaths and remains a country of great concern with bird flu in 30 of 33 provinces, Nabarro said.

He praised the government's commitment but said a lot remains to be done and the country needs money to change the way poultry is raised, improve veterinary services and compensate farmers whose birds are culled.

There are also serious concerns about the ability of some African countries to deal adequately with bird flu because of understaffed animal health services and low budgets, Nabarro said, noting a recent outbreak in Juba in southern Sudan.

He praised the successful efforts to combat bird flu in Vietnam and Thailand, the "good and rapid response" to outbreaks in Niger, Cameroon and Burkina Faso, and Myanmar's rapid response to very intense outbreaks earlier this year.

"Myanmar authorities seem to have had better cooperation with the outside world on this issue than they've had on any other issue," Nabarro said. "At the moment, it seems the government is poised so that if there are further outbreaks, the government can deal with them quite quickly." (AP)


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