While the deadly bird flu virus has not spread as widely as feared in Africa, vigilance is still needed across the world to counter its advance and deal with its impact on humans, the United Nations coordinator for the disease said today, expressing in particular “very great concern” over Indonesia, where practically the whole country has been affected.
“The situation with regard to avian influenza in the world is that in 2006 we did see more than 30 countries reporting outbreaks. The disease didn’t spread quite so profoundly in Africa as we had expected it might… but still the amount of viral outbreaks in 2006 were many greater than any previous year,” Dr. David Nabarro, the Senior UN System Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza told reporters in New York.
“Unfortunately the virus continues to affect humans: there are 256 people known to be affected, 151 dying and the rate of human death is still distressingly high, with Indonesia increasingly becoming the country which causes all of us… very great concern.”
There have been 43 deaths out of 53 human cases so far in Indonesia this year, a significant proportion of the 73 human deaths recorded worldwide since the start of 2006, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) reports, noting that the Asian region has been hardest hit by the virus, which spreads through contact with infected birds.
However experts fear that the H5N1 virus could mutate, gaining the ability to pass from person to person and in a worst case scenario unleashing a deadly human pandemic. Dr. Nabarro warned that it will remain a “major animal health issue” for years.
“We think it’s going to stay that way for five years perhaps 10 years to come because the virus is highly pathogenic yet at the same time can seem to survive in certain communities of birds without symptoms… and secondly it does seem to be spread by a combination of wild birds and trade.”
Dr. Nabarro, who has just returned from a fact-finding trip to Australia, Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar, said in order to deal with such a long-term problem, which has already forced the culling of hundreds of millions of poultry to curb the disease’s spread, it will mean changes to commercial bird rearing and also better preparedness to deal with outbreaks.
Already such changes are taking place, he said, praising countries responses to the disease, including better preparation and improved veterinarian services; however more needed to be done, especially in Indonesia.
“Indonesia has the virus probably in 30 out of 33 provinces… now Indonesia has had to move fast to completely redesign its animal health services… the Government certainly is committed together with the UN to making this happen but… still there’s such a lot to be done.”
Stressing the need for continuous vigilance, Dr. Nabarro also highlighted the importance of being better prepared for any human outbreaks worldwide and noted in particular a call by the WHO today for more action and funding to prepare for this and other pandemic influenzas.
“We’ve seen big efforts by the World Health Organization (WHO) working with Governments to make sure that we’ve got a containment system in place and WHO today releasing its Global Action Plan for vaccine development, so that if a pandemic does appear we’ve got a better supply of vaccines in place to deal with this,” he said.
The new plan, based on advice from more than 120 immunization and other experts, warns that the world is far short of the amount of vaccine needed to counter an outbreak of pandemic influenza should it break out and it urges immediate action to remedy this.
“We are presently several billion doses short of the amount of pandemic influenza vaccine we would need to protect the global population. This situation could lead to a public health crisis,” said Dr Marie-Paule Kieny, Director, WHO Initiative for Vaccine Research.
“The Global Action Plan sets the course for what needs to be done, starting now, to increase vaccine production capacity and close the gap. In just three to five years we could begin to see results that could save many lives in case of a pandemic.”