Bird flu still of critical concern, needs more international attention – UN official
Bird flu, which health officials fear could mutate into a deadly human pandemic, in a worst-case scenario, remains a critical concern in many Asian countries and requires more attention by both affected states and the international community, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
“Eradication of the virus from the eight affected Asian countries will not be easily achieved,” FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech told an international conference on bird flu in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, yesterday. The meeting is jointly organized by FAO, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the intergovernmental World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).
“We notice with considerable relief that a recent joint WHO/FAO/OIE mission to Viet Nam concluded that there is currently no evidence of virus change and that the virus is not as widely spread among humans as initially thought,” he added, noting that there was therefore no need at the moment to raise the level of pandemic alert.
“But there is also no reason for complacency,” he declared. “The virus continues to circulate in poultry and wild birds and requires highest attention. Many questions remain unanswered and more research and major investments for national and regional control operations are required.”
WHO is concerned that continuing transmission from birds to humans might give avian and human influenza viruses an opportunity to exchange genes, facilitating a pandemic that in a worst case scenario could kill tens of millions of people worldwide. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920, unrelated to the present virus, is estimated to have killed between 20 million and 40 million people around the world.
Mr. Domenech called upon affected countries to share information openly about their prevention and control strategies and stressed that in some countries, such as Viet Nam, where the virus is widely spread, massive vaccination could be the only way to reduce infection in poultry to protect humans.
He advised against the use of antiviral drugs such as amantadine, an important anti-flu drug meant for humans, following its reported use by Chinese farmers to treat major bird flu outbreaks among chickens. “The use of an anti-viral drug in poultry will create drug resistance and will hamper the treatment of avian flu in humans,” he said, calling on the Chinese authorities to be more transparent about their control strategies.
There have been more than 100 reported human infections, about 50 of them fatal, since the first case linked to widespread poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand was reported in January last year. Nearly 140 million domestic birds have died or been culled over the past year in South-East Asia in an effort to curb the spread of the disease.