MSNBC News Services
Updated: 3:25 p.m. ET Feb. 23, 2005
World Health Organization officials urged governments on Wednesday to act swiftly to control the spread of bird flu, warning that the world is in grave danger of a deadly pandemic triggered by the virus.
The illness has killed 45 people in Asia over the past year, in cases largely traced to contact with sick birds, and experts have warned the H5N1 virus could become far deadlier if it mutates into a form that can be easily transmitted among humans. A global pandemic could kill millions, they say.
“We at WHO believe that the world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic,” Dr. Shigeru Omi, the WHO’s Western Pacific regional director, said Wednesday.
He said the world is “now overdue” for an influenza pandemic, since mass epidemics have occurred every 20 to 30 years. It has been nearly 40 years since the last one.
Better coordination critical
Speaking at the opening of a three-day bird flu conference in Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City, Omi said it is critical that the international community better coordinate its fight against the virus.
As bird flu experts met to devise plans to combat the H5N1 virus, scientists said they lacked knowledge about whether the strain that has led to the slaughter of tens of millions of birds has the pandemic potential of the 1918 Spanish flu that killed between 20 million and 40 million people.
They cautioned that more evidence is needed about how infectious the virus is in humans.
To become a pandemic strain, H5N1 would have to adapt sufficiently on its own, or mix its genetic material with a human virus to become highly infectious in humans who have no protection against it.
“We don’t know whether the virus that is currently circulating among poultry in southeast Asia, the H5N1, will eventually be able to reassert its genetic material with a human influenza virus. That is the key question,” Professor Albert Osterhaus, a leading European virologist at Erasmus University Hospital in Rotterdam, told Reuters in an interview.
So far the H5N1 strain has shown no evidence that it has become highly infectious in humans. Scientists also do not know how many people may have been exposed to it.
But Laurence Tiley, a molecular virologist at Cambridge University in England, said the H5N1 strain is lethal.
“It is the most likely candidate for adapting and becoming a pandemic strain because we are not going to be able to get rid of it easily,” he said.
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