Bird flu, though largely contained, still poses global threat – UN health expert

16 April 2010
Avian influenza is still a menace.

Although concerted international action has successfully eliminated the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus from poultry in nearly all 63 countries infected by the world outbreak in 2006, it persists in five nations, posing a continuing threat to global animal and human health, a senior United Nations official warned today.

H5N1 killed almost 300 people, killed or forced the culling of over 260 million birds, caused an estimated $20 billion in economic damage across the globe and devastated livelihoods at the family-farm level. Experts feared it could mutate into a deadlier, human-to-human transmissible form, but recent concerns have focused on a different variation – H1N1, or so-called swine flu.

“Though public attention shifted to the H1N1 influenza pandemic for most of 2009, H5N1 continues to be a serious menace,” UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth said ahead of the International Ministerial Conference on Animal and Pandemic Influenza opening in Hanoi, Viet Nam on Monday, noting that H5N1 was entrenched in Egypt, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Viet Nam and China.

“The progressive control of H5N1 in such countries remains an international priority,” he warned. “As long as it is present in even one country, there is still a public health risk to be taken seriously.”

In the five infected countries there are tens of millions of free-ranging domestic ducks, significant industrial broiler production exists together with live bird markets, and human and animal densities are high. “Where those circumstances are present finding effective solutions remains a major challenge,” Dr. Lubroth said.

The very process of economic and population growth, including intensified agricultural production, fosters the emergence of new infectious diseases as ever larger numbers of animals and humans occupy delicate ecosystems, he added.

“It is clear that humans will continue to become exposed to a variety of influenza viruses originating in animals, and even if the severity and magnitude of resulting outbreaks remains unpredictable we know that pressures are building,” he said.

FAO, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), which led global efforts against H5N1, should take a leading role in finding a definitive solution to the problem, he stressed. The Hanoi conference aims to marshal global cooperation against future infectious diseases, drawing on experience gained in response to H1N1 and H5N1.

“We must stop hopping from one crisis situation to the next,” Dr. Lubroth said. “We have to do a better job of forecasting and monitoring the drivers that promote the emergence and spread of diseases, and institute improved risk management. We must be able to tackle problems at source before they become regional, continental or global threats.”


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