Bird flu could be worse than AIDS, says WHO

This comes amid reports that African countries like Zambia, which lie along traditional paths taken by migratory birds in their annual north to south winter pilgrimage as they escape freezing winters in the northern hemisphere, face a high risk of bird flu. Experts last week urged Zambian authorities to start taking mitigation measures to reduce the impact of the flu in the event of an outbreak. Most Southern African governments are already preoccupied with reducing the impact of HIV and AIDS, declared a national disaster in most countries, on their economies, and they appear ill-prepared for a major outbreak of the lethal H5N1 strain of the virus, which has already killed 96 out of an estimated 200 infected people and cost 300 million poultry farmers more than US$10 billion worldwide. The H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus, carried by birds and also infecting cats and humans, has been described by scientists as an unprecedented animal illness and there are fears that it could mutate into a strain that could be more easily passed between humans and trigger a horrendous global epidemic. Efforts to manufacture vaccines to prevent a global outbreak of the virus are underway, with the United States’ Department of Health announcing last week that it had several millions of vaccines based on samples of H5N1 taken from Vietnam in 2004. Scientists noted that the H5N1 strain of bird flu was changing as shown by its spread to cats in Austria and could mutate into forms that are more easily transmitted than the HIV virus since it is airborne, therefore the need to pre-empt its spread by providing vaccines in time. Officials from the United States, the European Union and UN health agencies met in Rome last week and agreed that the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) would become the global coordinating body for the fight against avian influenza, with the UN body playing a lead role in the global effort to combat the impact of bird flu. US Department of Agriculture’s top bird flu official, Ron DeHaven said that developed countries were still unprepared to reduce the impact of bird flu and prevent a global pandemic among humans, saying efforts to mitigate the spread and impact of the virus required more effective strategies. “What we are seeing is a very, very unique ability to affect birds and people and the speed with which it has spread across the globe (means) it needs a different mechanism,” he said. The virus has so far spread to 17 countries in the past two months, including Iraq, Niger, Nigeria, Italy, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Iran, Austria, Germany, Greece, Egypt, India, Azerbaijan and France, killing millions of birds and triggering panic quarantining operations in its wake. Two cats reported to have shared a shelter with birds in Austria died of the H5N1 strain of bird flu, raising fears that the virus was mutating into forms that could be passed between humans, and global health authorities are making efforts to negotiate with governments in affected countries to formulate laws that will allow for the quarantining of infected people. Although the U.S. government has several million doses of a bird flu vaccine, the vaccine was designed for a much earlier strain of the virus, and the government is reported to have authorized the manufacturing of a second vaccine. China has concentrated its efforts on keeping H5N1 from mutating since the first outbreak in 2004. Bird flu is widely expected to produce a global influenza pandemic that will follow the trend of earlier pandemics that occur periodically in phases ranging to 1-40 years. The last influenza pandemic struck in 1968, following one in 1957 and another at the end of the First World War in 1918. However, WHO warned that the death toll from a flu pandemic produced by H5N1 would be much higher than that of earlier pandemics because the H5N1 virus is airborne, therefore much more contagious than HIV/AIDS. In Africa, the bird flu virus has hit Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Niger and Egypt. The coming of migratory birds from Europe this season is expected to increase the risk of bird flu in Africa.

March 2006
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