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Time running out to stop bird flu - experts

Reuters | May 25, 2005
By Patricia Reaney

It could infect 20 percent of the world's population, kill many millions and create an economic crisis but scientists say not enough is being done to combat a bird flu virus that could trigger a global pandemic.

The Asian H5N1 virus that first surfaced in poultry in Hong Kong and China eight years ago has killed 37 people in Vietnam, 12 in Thailand and four in Cambodia.

Global health officials fear it could mutate into a lethal strain that could rival the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed between 20 and 40 million people.

"Time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic," said Michael Osterholm, of the University of Minnesota, on Wednesday in a special section of the journal Nature devoted to avian flu.

"There is a critical need for comprehensive medical and non-medical pandemic planning at the ground level that goes beyond what has been considered so far," he added.

Scientists believe the next pandemic, which many believe is overdue, will probably originate in poultry in Asia. To become a pandemic strain, H5N1 will 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.

Although this strain of bird flu has been circulating in Asia for years, Albert Osterhaus and virologists at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam in the Netherlands said research into outbreaks in Asia has been patchy and uncoordinated.

They believe more is needed.

"We propose establishing a permanent global task force to control a flu pandemic, in which relevant agencies would work together with leading research groups from different disciplines," they said in the journal.

The scientists estimate that the task force, which would consist of specialists in human and animal diseases, as well as pathologists, ecologists and agricultural experts, would cost less than $1.5 million a year.

HUMAN AND BIRD VACCINES

Developing countries are now stockpiling Roche's antiviral drug Tamiflu against the threat of an human flu pandemic. The drug made by the Swiss pharmaceutical giant will be the first line of defense while scientists prepare an effective vaccine, which could take months to develop.

Although Roche has quadrupled its production capacity for the drug, experts believe global stockpiles will not be enough if a pandemic develops. The drug will not prevent a pandemic but it can reduce the duration of flu symptoms.

So far about 50 countries have drawn up plans to deal with a pandemic but only a few are in Asia where it is likely to start.

Other experts believe too little attention has been focused on a global strategy to prevent a pandemic at its source -- in animals and particularly poultry.

Hong Kong destroyed 1.5 million birds in 1997 when the H5N1 virus appeared. It also introduced surveillance and movement restrictions for poultry. Other nations decided to vaccinate animals or opted for surveillance programs.

Scientists are already testing the safety of an inactivated H5N1 virus made by Sanofi-Aventis . A contract to produce 2 million doses as a stockpile has also been signed.

"This effort will ensure that, should the need arise, the manufacturing techniques, procedures, and conditions for large-scale production are already in place," said Dr Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Unlike other pandemics, scientists now have the knowledge and technology to develop countermeasures against the disease.

"However, unless we improve our capacity to produce such countermeasures, we may experience again the devastation of past pandemics," Fauci added.

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