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Expert Warns Of Complacency Over New Flu Strains

September 6, 2010

A virus expert on Sunday urged health authorities around the world to remain vigilant even though the recent swine flu pandemic was less deadly than forecasted, warning that bird flu could ignite the next global outbreak.

An official with the World Health Organization (WHO) also defended the UN’s health agency against accusations that it wasted governments’ money and enriched pharmaceutical companies with its strong warnings during the early days of last year’s swine flu outbreak.

The swine flu pandemic was declared over by the WHO last month. The total death toll was just over 18,600 — far below the millions that were once predicted. The head of the health agency has credited good preparation and luck, since swine flu didn’t mutate as some had worried about.

Researcher Robert Webster, however, warned against complacency when speaking to reporters at an influenza conference in Hong Kong.

“We may think we can relax and influenza is no longer a problem. I want to assure you that that is not the case,” Webster, chairman of the virology and molecular biology department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, told the Associated Press (AP).

Webster has predicted that the next pandemic could be triggered by a virus that spreads from water fowl to pigs and then to people. He noted that after several years of decline, the number of bird flu cases in humans increased in 2009, lifted by a number of cases in Egypt.

“H5N1 can kill 61 percent of humans infected, but it doesn’t know how to spread from human to human,” Webster told AP, adding that it is not a good idea to trust this, because it could eventually acquire that capacity. “We must stay vigilant.”

Sylvie Briand, head of WHO’s global influenza program, told the news agency that studies have shown that the bird flu strain isn’t capable of moving between humans except in rare instances of close personal contact. But, echoing Webster, she warned: “These are viruses that are evolving. They are changing all the time.”

Both experts said it’s hard to predict when — or if — bird flu will set off a new pandemic. “We don’t understand enough about the virus to make predictions,” said Webster.

Briand defended WHO against accusations that it hyped the swine flu pandemic, saying it was acting with limited knowledge of the virus when it first surfaced and adjusted its response when it became clear the outbreak wasn’t as serious as predicted.

WHO received more than $170 million from member nations to deal with the outbreak, some of which was invested in immunization programs long after the strain was known to cause mild illness in most that were infected. Governments spent much more than that buying vaccines and antiviral medications that are now being thrown out.

European lawmakers have repeatedly accused WHO of over-emphasizing the danger of swine flu and playing into the hands of pharmaceutical companies, which has earned millions from the outbreak since April 2009.

“We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best. And as the information became available, there was adaptation of the plan and adaptation of the recommendations in order to really tailor the response to the reality,” Briand told AP.

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