The World Health Organization has warned that between
2 million and 7 million people worldwide could die in a flu pandemic if the deadly
H5N1 strain of the avian flu mutates to spread easily from human to human, something
health authorities across the world are working together to prevent.
pandemics are remarkable events that can rapidly infect virtually all countries,"
said a September 2005 WHO report on the H5N1 virus that has killed over 60 people
in Southeast Asia. "Once international spread begins, pandemics are considered
unstoppable, caused as they are by a virus that spreads very rapidly by coughing
As more and more flocks of birds are found to have been exposed
to the virus, stopping the onslaught of a deadly pandemic in humans has become
a top priority for governments and international health and agriculture organizations.
More than 140 million birds have died or been killed as a result of the virus,
according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and new outbreaks continue
in parts of Asia and Europe.
"The people of the country ought to rest assured
that we're doing everything we can: We're watching it, we're careful, we're in
communications with the world," President Bush told reporters at an Oct. 4, 2005
news conference in Washington.
July 2005, avian influenza, also know as the bird flu, was isolated in Southeast
Asia where in 1997 the first recorded outbreak in humans infected 18 people in
Hong Kong and killed six. Then, in 2003 and 2004, several Asian countries -- South
Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, China and Malaysia
-- reported cases of the disease in poultry.
Now, authorities at the Food
and Agriculture Organization fear that migratory birds traveling between continents
may help spread the virus from birds in Asia to wild birds and poultry in parts
of Europe, Africa and the Middle East as birds return to cooler temperatures in
"The spring migration of 2006 may result in the spread of HPAI
(highly pathogenic avian influenza) H5N1 virus further across Europe since birds
migrating from southern zones will have intermingled with European Russia and
Siberia-origin birds during the 2005/2006 winter nesting areas," said a September
2005 FAO study.
To combat bird-to-human contact, the FAO and the WHO have
said stopping the virus at its source -- farms -- could help avert a pandemic.
This means some farmers, both rural and commercial, will be forced to destroy
many more birds before the virus is contained.
Authorities fear that outbreaks
in small, rural communities could lead to a mutation of the virus and a jump from
bird-to-bird transmission and rare human infections to widespread human-to-human
In areas where people have contracted the avian flu, most
of the cases have resulted from direct contact with their sick birds.
But because many small farmers are not being compensated for lost birds, few
are willing to admit to having sick flocks, making fighting the spread of the
virus difficult. According to the FAO, economic losses to the Asian poultry industry
have reached $10 billion.
"We're still seeing in some places when there
are outbreaks in the poultry, the owner of those birds they don't want to kill
the birds," Hong Kong microbiologist Dr. Chen Jixiang told ABC News.
also have resorted to stiffer trade practices and outright bans on products, which
could mean further economic losses for farmers in affected countries. Following
the discovery of bird flu in Turkey and Romania, the European Commission banned
imports of live poultry and pet birds and is considering banning imports of poultry
from countries where the virus has been found, such as Croatia.
agricultural organizations are urging limited contact between workers and poultry
at production facilities and increased monitoring of open air facilities where
poultry could mix with wild birds.
The FAO has also called on countries
to prevent further spread of the disease by adopting safety and security measures
at commercial farms, including better organizing how the birds are kept, restricting
the production and movement of certain poultry and providing workers involved
with killing the animals protective equipment and disinfectants.
a human flu pandemic does occur, the United Nations is urging countries to develop
medical plans by instituting influenza response plans and stocking up on supplies
of antiviral drugs like Tamiflu and Relenza that can be used to treat humans with
the flu virus.
date, only a small percentage of countries have complied with WHO directives to
stockpile drugs, increase response time to warnings of outbreaks and to help stop
the virus at the root. Many countries, including those in Southeast Asia, have
been unable to comply because of limited financial resources.
activities are costly, wealthy countries are presently the best prepared," the
WHO reported. "Countries where H5N1 is endemic -- and where a pandemic virus is
most likely to emerge -- lag far behind."
About 23 countries have ordered
antiviral drugs, according to the organization, and only 10 countries are actively
producing domestic supplies of a vaccine. "The majority of developing countries
would have no access to a vaccine during the first wave of a pandemic and possibly
throughout its duration," the WHO reported.