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Threat Of Avian Flu Pandemic Still Present

January 5, 2009

The deadly H5N1 virus, known as bird flu, has resurfaced in poultry in Hong Kong for the first time in six years, reawakening fears of possible threats to human health.

In December, two years after cases of the virus peaked, reports of a resurgence began to arise in the Middle East. Cases have were reported in India, Bangladesh, Vietnam Egypt, Cambodia and China during the last month of 2008.

The United Nations said improved efforts to monitor and quarantine the virus have helped to calm international fears of a deadly pandemic.

However, H5N1 has continued to “at the very least smolder, and many times flare up,” Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, told the Los Angeles Times.

“What alarms me is that we have developed a sense of pandemic-preparedness fatigue,” he said.

The UN System Influenza Coordinator (UNSIC) and the World Bank produced a recent report of the state of avian influenza and pandemic readiness “in response to requests from participants at the New Delhi International Ministerial Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza, which took place during December 2007.”

The report is based primarily on analyses of data provided by 148 countries in response to a survey questionnaire distributed by UNSIC in June 2008.

“An analysis of the situation world-wide between January and June 2008 indicates fewer outbreaks of Highly Pathogenic Avian influenza (HPAI) and fewer infected countries compared to the same period in 2006 and 2007,” according to the UN report.

There were no reports of newly infected countries from January to September 2008.

However, “Sporadic human infections with highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N1) viruses continue to occur.”

The total human cases of avian influenza have reached 387 as of September 10, 2008, according to the World Health Organization. Of those infections, 245 deaths were reported in 15 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe.

In 2008, there have been 36 reported human cases and 28 deaths linked to the virus.

To fuel a pandemic, a virus must be able to both infect humans and spread readily from person to person. The currently circulating H5N1 strain does neither well.

The UN report also told of the current state of financial assistance granted to countries dealing with avian influenza.

Against total pledges of $2.7 billion, donors have reported commitments of $2.0 billion, of which $1.5 billion has been disbursed, according to the report.

Countries in East and South Asia together received $460 million, or 56 percent of commitments to date; countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia received $184 million, or 22 percent of total commitments; and countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa received $167 million, or 20 percent of total commitments.

The report also noted that less than 1 percent of $1.7 billion grant funding pledged by bilateral donors and the European Commission remains to be committed.

“There is a risk that this decline in resources pledged, especially for countries with the greatest remaining needs, could undermine the sustainability of the investments made to date,” the UN report concluded.

“In order to build on the initial emergency response and successes achieved to date ““both in responding to outbreaks in infected countries and in building capacity in infected and non-infected countries ““there is a need to meet the longer term funding needs and gaps.”

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