September 29, 2005

UN opens drive against threatened flu pandemic

By Irwin Arieff

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The United Nations is launching
a worldwide drive to counter a threatened global flu pandemic
that could kill as many as 150 million people if the bird flu
virus starts spreading from human to human, a top U.N. health
expert said on Thursday.

Dr. David Nabarro of the Geneva-based World Health
Organization said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked
him to head up a worldwide drive to contain the current bird
flu pandemic and prepare for its possible jump to humans.

If the virus begins spreading among humans, the quality of
the world response will determine whether it ends up killing as
few as five million or as many as 150 million, Nabarro, 56,
told a news conference.

The last flu pandemic, which broke out in 1918 at the tail
end of World War One, killed more than 40 million people and
drove home the vulnerability of a world where borders had less
and less meaning, he said.

It seems "very likely" the H5N1 bird flu virus will soon
change into a variant able to be transmitted among humans and
it would be a big mistake to ignore that danger, he warned. "I
am almost certain there will be another pandemic soon."

So far, the H5N1 virus has mainly infected humans who were
in close contact with infected birds and has killed 66 people
in four Asian nations since late 2003.

Millions of birds have been destroyed, causing estimated
losses of $10 billion to $15 billion to the poultry industry,
with the heaviest losses in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.
The virus has also been found in birds in Russia and Europe.

But once humans have caught it, the virus has shown it has
the power to kill one out of every two people it infects.


Asia and the Middle East are particular concerns as the
bird flu is now concentrated in Asia and could be carried to
the Middle East by migratory flocks. he said.

But an outbreak in an impoverished and conflict-ridden part
of Africa such as Sudan, where health services are scarce and
millions have been driven from their homes, could lead to "a
nightmare scenario," he said.

Until now, the effort to contain the spread of the virus
among birds and prepare for a possible shift to humans has been
led by the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health,
the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organization and the WHO.

Nabarro said he would head a new U.N. system-wide office in
New York that would begin mobilizing governments, international
agencies, health workers and the pharmaceutical industry.

Once the virus began spreading among humans, it would be
only "a matter of weeks" before a pandemic was under way, so a
rapid response would be crucial, he said.

Two particular challenges will be governments' traditional
desire to ignore threats until they become real dangers, and
their reluctance to publicly admit they have a problem once the
disease starts spreading, he said.

A vaccine would be the best way to counter the virus and
several drug firms around the world are working on one. But
production is slow and the immunization must match the strain
that is actually infecting people, so it is not possible to
make them up before a new strain emerges.