Africa must curb bird flu and its chances of jumping to humans – UN health chief
It is critical for African countries to limit the spread of bird flu in animals and the concurrent opportunities for the virus to mutate into a potentially deadly human pandemic on a continent where veterinary and human health services are weaker than elsewhere, the head of the United Nations health agency said today.
“Countries on this continent must be equipped to take many important actions,” World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Lee Jong-wook declared in Nairobi, Kenya, listing three imperatives: to quickly confirm the H5N1 virus in birds, to find and treat people who may fall ill with it, and to track its mutations.
“Almost $2 billion were pledged at the Beijing meeting in January, and this funding is needed here, now, to strengthen health and veterinary services,” he told a news conference at the end of a three-country visit that also took him to Madagascar and Mauritius.
“At the same time, African governments need to finalize avian influenza and pandemic influenza plans. They need to allocate their own resources to turn these plans into action. This includes simulation exercises, so that plans can be tested and improved. As part of this, it will be vitally important to have disease containment plans in place.”
Dr. Lee’s warning came as WHO reported that only a month after Nigeria’s first case of bird flu was confirmed on a single farm, it had now spread to more than 130 farms in 11 of the 37 states of Africa’s most populous country.
He noted that at the moment H5N1 is rarely deadly to humans and that globally only 175 people had fallen ill, 96 of them fatally, in the two-year-old outbreak, with almost all infections caused by very close contact with sick or dead birds. But the great worry is that the virus could change into a type that spreads easily from person to person.
Although there is no evidence now of sustained human-to-human transmission of H5N1, or any other potential influenza pandemic virus, “we must use this time nature is giving us to prepare,” he warned. “This would be a virus against which none of us is immune.”
He called for every country to have an avian influenza and human pandemic preparedness plan. “In practice these require surveillance and laboratory capacity for animals and for people; early warning systems and virus tracking; strong coordination between the animal and human health sectors; and very importantly, immediate and transparent reporting of animal outbreaks and of human cases,” he said.
As part of these efforts, 70 public health experts concluded three-day meeting at WHO’s Geneva headquarters yesterday to draw up an operational plan to contain an initial outbreak of human pandemic flu. Although containing a pandemic at its source has never been tried before, evidence that it may be possible has been mounting.
“It may be that containment efforts would only slow the spread of a pandemic,” WHO Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases Margaret Chan said. “But even that will buy us time so that countries can begin activating their pandemic preparedness plans and companies can begin on the lengthy process of manufacturing an effective human pandemic vaccine.”
The so-called Spanish flu pandemic that broke out in 1918 is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide by the time it had run its course two years later.