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Health Officials Say World is One Step from Avian Flu Pandemic

International health officials touring Southeast Asian nations have issued blunt warnings that the avian flu virus could mutate and infect large numbers of people.

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt, and World Health Organization (WHO) Director General, Dr. Jong Woo Lee, are in Thailand, the first stop on a four-nation tour to shore up cooperation to contain the avian flu virus.  

The virulent strain of bird flu, called H5N1, has swept through poultry populations in Asia since 2003.  At least 62 people in the region have died from the virus and tens of millions of birds have been killed in an attempt to stop the virus from spreading in bird populations.

Those people who died in Asia had come in contact with infected birds.  And, so far there has been no evidence that the virus is transmitted person-to-person.  Dr. Lee says millions of people could die if the virus mutates into a form that spreads easily among people.  

"The burning question is, you know, will there be a human influenza pandemic?” said Dr. Lee. “I believe, on behalf of WHO, I can tell you that there will be. And right now the only one condition missing is the virus that is rapidly transmitted from human to human."

Secretary Leavitt says scientists have developed a vaccine for the avian flu, but the dosage for effectively combating the disease is six to twelve times that of the vaccines currently used for seasonal influenza. 

Mr. Leavitt encouraged nations to develop their own vaccine production facilities, because the likelihood of a human flu pandemic is very high.  "We don't have sufficient manufacturing capability because of the amount that it takes to create a vaccine for even every person in the United States, let alone the world."

And the bird flu keeps spreading.  In the past few days, the avian flu was detected in two European nations.  Officials restricted access to a Romanian village after three ducks were found dead from the virus.  And in Turkey, 3,000 turkeys and chickens were culled after another 1800 turkeys died of the disease last week.  To prevent the further spread of the disease, Turkish officials have indicated they will continue to kill poultry in the affected area for the next three weeks. 

On Monday, The European Union announced a ban on all imports of live birds and feathers from Turkey.  Results of tests on the Romanian and Turkish fowl should be available by October 12th.  At that time officials should known whether the birds were infected by the H5N1 virus or another strain of bird flu. 

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