The United Nations health agency has offered assistance to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in preparing a response to an epidemic of bird flu among chickens.
But the outbreak so far involved only animals, World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson Fadela Chaib told a news briefing in Geneva of the disease which, if it is spread to humans, could lead to a pandemic that in a worst-case scenario could claim tens of millions of lives worldwide.
Fresh human cases of the H5N1 virus – 24 since mid-December, 13 of them fatal – have occurred in Viet Nam. Overall there have been 69 reported infections, 46 of them fatal, since the first human case linked to widespread poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand was reported in January last year.
WHO has repeatedly warned that H5N1 could mutate into a new human virus with pandemic potential. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, which was not related to the present virus, is estimated to have killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide.
Nearly 140 million domestic birds have died or been culled over the past year in southeast Asia in an effort to curb the spread of H5N1. WHO is concerned that continuing transmission to humans might give avian and human influenza viruses an opportunity to exchange genes, facilitating a pandemic.