Massive flu outbreak could happen at any moment, WHO warns
Today Online | July 23, 2005
The world could at any time be faced with a massive flu outbreak like those in 1918 or 1968 that killed tens of millions of people, the World Health Organization warned, urging countries to be prepared.
"History has told us that no one can stop a pandemic. The question is: when is it going to happen?" WHO spokeswoman Margaret Chan told reporters.
"I don't think anybody has the answer to it. We have to be on the lookout for any time, any day," she added.
Deadly avian influenza, which has killed 55 people in Asia since resurfacing in 2003, has the potential to become a major human pandemic if the virus were to mutate and allow human-to-human transmission, Chan said.
The HN51 strain of bird flu, which has killed hundreds of thousands of birds, constitutes one of several "warnings from nature" -- the first since 1968, according to Chan, Hong Kong's director of health from 1994 to 2003.
"We collectively, particularly national authorities, have to take a very conscientious decision: if you are given early signals and if you are not prepared, you have a very difficult case to answer if indeed it happens," she said.
"Our experience is that if you are prepared for a pandemic, you get less impact in terms of mortality, morbidity, social and economic disruption."
Chan admitted that preparation for a possible flu pandemic could divert resources from other health emergencies like the fight against AIDS or polio, but said such measures would improve the tracking of life-threatening diseases.
After Indonesia earlier this week announced its first human deaths from bird flu, and cases were reported in Siberian poultry, Chan warned that "the scope is getting wider and wider".
The WHO's greatest fear is that human influenza and bird flu could somehow combine to unleash a pandemic on the world.
"With winter coming, we need to enhance our vigilance," she said.
She reminded countries struck by bird flu to limit contact between humans and live poultry, as well as contact between different species in live markets.
Such rules were implemented in Hong Kong when bird flu first appeared in 1997, and no cases -- either in animals or humans -- have been reported there since, Chan added.
The expert said the Geneva-based WHO was still awaiting samples taken from migratory birds in China, 6,000 of which have died in Qinghai province since May.
Chinese researchers believe the strain afflicting their birds could be even more deadly than the HN51 strain.
"We have impressed upon them the importance of sharing these specimens. We will not give up our effort: we owe it to the world, it's a global health security issue," Chan told reporters. — AFP