December 9, 2005

Bird Flu Kills Thai Boy, Bleak Pandemic Reports Released in U.S.

By Panarat Thepgumpanat and Maggie Fox

BANGKOK/WASHINGTON -- Bird flu killed a young Thai boy, Asia's 70th victim of the deadly virus, authorities said on Friday, as two reports detailed how a pandemic could cause a serious recession in the United States.

China also reported a new case of H5N1, the fifth person in the country known to have been infected with the deadly virus. The 31-year-old woman, who lived in the Heishan county of Liaoning province, has since recovered.

The death of the 5-year-old boy from the central province of Nakhon Nayok, 110 km (70 miles) from Bangkok, took Thailand's bird flu death toll to 14 out of 22 known cases since the virus swept through large parts of Asia in late 2003.

He was the second Thai killed by the H5N1 virus since bird flu erupted anew in the country in October, when a 48-year-old man died.

It was not yet certain how the boy caught the virus, which usually strikes those in close contact with infected fowl or their droppings, senior health officials said. The boy, who died in hospital on Wednesday, was not known to have had direct contact with chickens, health officials said.

"We believe that the boy contracted the virus from his surroundings because, although his family does not raise chickens, there are chickens raised in his neighborhood," said Thawat Suntrajarn, head of the Health Ministry's Disease Control Department.

That would follow the usual pattern of human infections of the virus, which has not yet shown signs of evolving into a form which could pass easily from person to person.

Experts say that is the great fear. If the H5N1 virus did acquire that ability, it could set off a pandemic which could kill millions of people without immunity to the new strain.

In the two years since the virus began to spread widely in Asia, there has been only one case in Thailand in which H5N1 is suspected of moving from person to person -- that of a mother who died after cradling her dying daughter all night.

But the World Health Organization says the virus is now endemic in parts of Asia and countries around the world are preparing plans to deal with a pandemic which could cause serious economic losses as well as widespread deaths.


In the United States, a report from New Jersey based WBB Securities LLC predicted a pandemic there could cause a one-year economic loss of $488 billion and a permanent economic loss of $1.4 trillion to the U.S. economy.

The World Bank has predicted a pandemic could cost the global economy $800 billion a year. U.S. President George W. Bush released a $7.1 billion bird flu plan in November but Congress has yet to fund it.

If the virus mutates into a form which passes between humans, it would likely closely resemble the 1918 pandemic strain of flu that killed anywhere between 20 million and 100 million people during World War One, separate reports released on Thursday by the WBB and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said.

This means 30 percent of the population would be infected and more than 2 percent would die, the report from the CBO said.

"Further, CBO assumed that those who survived would miss three weeks of work, either because they were sick, because they feared the risk of infection at work, or because they needed to care of family or friends," the report reads.

Hospitals would have difficulty controlling infection and might become sources for spreading the illness, the CBO said -- a fear echoed by another group, the National Center for Policy Analysis.

The WBB report estimated 35 percent of the population would become ill and 5 percent would die.

"If the influenza affected humans at the same level of virulence as the current H5N1 strain, practically all patients would require hospitalization, which would result in a shortage of some 6.5 million hospital beds per day during the pandemic," the WBB report reads.

In a boost for countries seeking the antiviral drug Tamiflu, one of four drugs known to work against influenza, manufacturer Roche reached agreements with two U.S. generic drugmakers, as well as 13 other drug producers, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer said on Thursday.

The agreements are meant to allow more production of the drug, known generically as oseltamivir, in case of an avian flu pandemic, Schumer, a New York Democrat, said in a statement.

Countries are seeking to stockpile the drug but all are many million doses short of what would be needed to treat a pandemic.

Last month, the company said Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines were free to begin making their own versions of the pill because it does not have patent protection in those countries.

(Additional reporting by Kanokwan Boonngok in Bangkok; Richard Cowan, Susan Heavey and Maggie Smith in Washington; Emma Graham-Harrison in Beijing)