While bird flu has been successfully checked in Western Europe and much of Southeast Asia apart from Indonesia, it is still expanding in Africa and will remain a threat for years to come, with the number of countries affected doubling to 60 in just the two months from February to April, United Nations officials said today.
“In the majority of cases, wherever HPAI [highly pathogenic avian influenza] has made its appearance we, the global community and the countries concerned have been able to stop it in its tracks,” UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Deputy Director-General David Harcharik told a high-level meeting of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on the disease in Geneva.
But, he warned at a Council special event on bird flu, “HPAI poses a continuing threat and we must brace ourselves to go on fighting it, quite likely for years.”
Mr. Harcharik stressed that it was imperative to act quickly and decisively to stop HPAI wherever it appeared because so long as the H5N1 virus causing it stayed in circulation it would remain a threat to the international community. H5N1 had not so far mutated into a form transmittable from one human being to another, but should it do so, the result could be a pandemic of vast proportions, he said.
There have so far been only 229 confirmed human cases, 131 of them fatal, since the current outbreak started in South East Asia in December 2003, nearly all of them ascribed to contact with infected birds, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO).
But since its onset experts have voiced concern that the virus could mutate and gain the ability to pass easily from human to human. The so-called Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, also starting from a bird flu virus, is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide by the time it run its course two years later.
UN senior Influenza Coordinator David Nabarro said wealthy donor nations, the European Union and others must understand that giving funds to poor nations to help them prepare for a possible bird flu pandemic is in their self-interest “as the avian flu knew no borders.”
Bird flu is “not science fiction, but a very real and dangerous threat that was not restricted to H5N1 as there are a variety of pathogens stemming from the animal kingdom that can threaten human security,” he added.
Mr Harcharik said HPAI was still a source of concern in Indonesia and continued to spread in Africa, where it risked becoming endemic in several countries. He cited difficulties in enforcing appropriate control measures such as culling, farmer compensation and checks on animal movements in African countries. Another complication was illegal trade in poultry.
“Until such trade is effectively checked by stronger official veterinary authorities, and until better surveillance, alert-response, diagnostics and reporting is achieved, the risk will remain with us,” he added said.
In the two and half years of the present emergency, some 200 million poultry have been culled, causing losses of $10 billion in Southeast Asia alone.
ECOSOC President Ali Hachani noted that since February, the virus had dramatically expanded its geographical footprint. Between February and early April, 32 countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East had reported infection in migratory or domestic birds, twice the number affected during the previous two and a half years.
“It is up to all of us to reverse this trend by committing to rapid effective and efficient action,” he said. “Funds pledged by donor countries should be disbursed with no further delay.” He stressed the specific role the UN has to play in supporting countries - setting standards monitoring progress, providing technical assistance and, when country capacity is limited, providing essential services.
Challenges still to be faced include functional coordination between animal and human health sectors, more effective mass communications and improved incentives to individuals and groups so that they report cases of disease and receive compensation for poultry that are culled as part of the control effort.
Such challenges are greatest in the poorest countries, principally in Africa, where scarce technical capacity and resources inhibit the operation of adequate veterinary and public health infrastructure.
WHO Assistant Director-General for Communicable Diseases Margaret Chan said her agency had carried out 50 country missions to assess the extent of the disease and to provide technical assistance.
UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) representative Katherine Rooney noted that in the event of a pandemic the ICAO would need rapid answers to such questions as what screening measures were required at airports for travellers and cargo.