WHO warns millions could die if bird flu mixes with new virus
HANOI: Millions of people around the world could die if the H5N1 strain of bird flu in Asia combines with another human influenza virus that is moving towards the region, the World Health Organisation said on Tuesday.
Dr Shigeru Omi, director of the UN health agency’s Western Pacific office, said there was a chance the two viruses could meet and mutate, triggering a global pandemic.
“In my judgment it is possible and so that’s why we have to work very hard today, not tomorrow, to contain this, to prevent that mutation at the molecular level from happening,” he told reporters in Hanoi.
Mr Omi said there was always potential that this kind of outbreak would result in serious global pandemic, which would involve not just hundreds, but would kill millions of people globally if this mutation happened in the virus. China on Tuesday became the 10th Asian country to confirm a bird flu outbreak. Like Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, it has been hit by the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain. Weaker strains of the disease have been detected in Pakistan, Taiwan and Laos.
Mr Omi said that although the number of human H5N1 infections was still limited it was rising on a daily basis, and as more poultry became infected, the greater the chance of human infection.
“The more the number of human cases, the more chance this virus will acquire the potential for human-to-human transmission,” he said. “This situation is even more serious because now you may be aware that the human influenza Type H3N2 is now occurring on the European continent and northern parts of America and this human strain is approaching Asia now.”
The WHO regional chief said he was unable to predict the chances of the two viruses combining but warned that the pathogenicity of the current H5N1 virus was stronger than that seen in Hong Kong in 1997, when six people died. “So if you take into account these things together it is possible, and we should not say this is a remote possibility,” Mr Omi said. “That’s why it is very important that all member states share information promptly and in a transparent manner.” Mr Omi said that a vaccine to protect humans against H5N1 was at least six months away.
“Therefore our immediate focus must be on prevention, containment and control of the H5N1 virus,” he said. “And at the international level, WHO member states must be prepared to work openly with each other facilitating cooperation between their technical experts and international agencies such as the WHO.” His comments echoed an earlier appeal by the WHO, the FAO and the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health for donors to provide funds and technical assistance to affected countries. —Agencies