With the unprecedented spread of “bird flu” in Asia raising the spectre of a human pandemic and causing disaster for agricultural production, United Nations agencies today appealed to international donors to provide funds and technical assistance to help eliminate the global threat, including the mass killing of infected birds.
The possible widespread occurrence of highly pathogenic avian influenza in several areas in Asia represents a significant control challenge, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO) said in a joint statement with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).
"With SARS, we learned that only by working together can we control emerging global public health threats," WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook said, referring to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which emerged in China in 2002 to spread as far afield as Canada, killing over 700 people and infecting more than 8,000 worldwide.
“Now, we confront another threat to human health and we must reaffirm existing collaboration and form new ones,” Dr. Lee said.
To date only two countries, Viet Nam and Thailand, have reported laboratory confirmed cases of bird flu infection in humans, the first with seven cases, six of them fatal, the second with three cases, two of them fatal.
But, the three agencies warned, “although it has not happened yet, the so-called ‘bird flu’ presents a risk of evolving into an efficient and dangerous human pathogen.”
If the virus circulates long enough in humans and farm animals, there is an increased risk that it may evolve into a pandemic influenza strain which could cause disease worldwide, they added.
"We have a brief window of opportunity before us to eliminate that threat," FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf declared. “Farmers in affected areas urgently need to kill infected and exposed animals and require support to compensate for such losses.”
“The international community has a stake in the success of these efforts and poorer nations will need help," Mr. Diouf added.
The project leader for WHO's avian flu response group, Klaus Stohr, told a news briefing in Geneva that the virus's animal reservoir must be killed off by people using proper protective gear to prevent infection, such as goggles and masks. Such measures are often not being taken and "that is certainly something which has to be changed relatively quickly in order really to keep this in the box," Dr. Stohr said.
So far infection has occurred by avian to human transmission, but if the virus re-combined with the human flu virus, it could create a new, more virulent strain of human-to-human infection and, in a worst-case scenario the death toll could "run up to very large numbers," Dr. Stohr said.
"It would be irresponsible not to consider [these scenarios] but we have a very good chance to deal with this outbreak now," he added.