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Experts in Asia Seek International Commitment, Funds to Fight Bird Flu

  • Kay Johnson

So far, the H5N1 avian influenza virus has killed 45 people in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, and six in Hong Kong - all since 1997.

In contrast, malaria, dengue fever and common influenza strains kill tens of thousands worldwide each year. Bird flu's dangers seem pale in comparison.

Yet on Thursday, international health experts at a conference in Ho Chi Minh City called for more than $100 million in aid to fight the H5N1 virus and condemned what they say is a lack of international commitment to control it.

The reason for their alarm is that H5N1 seems to spread especially fast in birds, and on the rare occasions when it jumps from poultry to humans, it appears to be unusually deadly, killing almost 80 percent of people known to have been infected.

What human health experts fear is that if this strain mutates so it can easily pass among humans, and if it retains its deadly nature, it could mushroom rapidly into a disastrous pandemic.

Michael Perdue, a World Health Organization scientist, says that Asia, and the world, must move fast to contain the virus and develop vaccines for it before it is too late. He illustrates his concerns by referring to the Spanish flu epidemic that swept the globe after 1918, killing millions of people.

"If you look the 1918 pandemic, how fast it spread across the United States, within three weeks it was completely spread across the United States," said Mr. Perdue. "So if you have a similar situation with a new subtype that arises, once the genie's out of the bottle, it's very difficult to slow it down."

Still, there's no guarantee that this particular strain of bird flu is in fact the next global pandemic. H5N1 might never become highly contagious among humans and it could just as easily mutate to become less deadly than it appears now. But health officials stress that this is not a reason to ignore the problem.

Dr. Jose Lubroth, an epidemiologist with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, says it is important to put animal control and human disease early warning systems in place.

"It's hard to really predict the future. … Should we have contingency plans? Should countries have preparedness plans? Of course," he said. "Should we be monitoring viruses around the world - not just in Asia - around the world? That should be done all the time, and veterinary laboratories should coordinate with human diagnostic labs so that the next vaccine would be available both in veterinary medicine or human medicine."

The chilling fact about avian flu is that no one really knows which strain might suddenly mutate into the next pandemic. Health officials say this is not a reason to be complacent but to be more vigilant. Taking action now, they say, is the best chance to head off the next deadly pandemic before it starts.

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