Last year, avian flu was confined to four countries in Asia. Today, the virus is reported in 33 nations on three continents and has killed 94 people. But even more troubling is the possibility that the virus might mutate and create a global pandemic that could claim the lives of millions. On Thursday, leading American health officials told a Congressional subcommittee about steps being taken to help prevent such a deadly outcome.
Hope is not a strategy. A threat anywhere is a threat everywhere. We must assume a worst-case scenario. These slogans expressed by participants of a House Foreign Operations subcommittee hearing (on Thursday) summarized the pervasive and imminent danger posed by a virus spread by migrating birds.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that international cooperation is needed to track the evolution of the bird flu virus so that scientists can quickly create a vaccine in case a deadly mutation emerges.
"We need to know that so that when we have our vaccine plans for a vaccine that would be beneficial not only to the United States but to people globally, we need to have that openness and transparency. Again, that is something that is getting better, but it is not exactly where we want it to be."
However, a recent protest by Egyptian poultry farmers shows that openness and transparency do not serve the immediate interests of people whose livelihood depends on having birds to sell. The demonstration came in response to a government decision to cull Egypt's bird population in response to a local bird flu outbreak.
Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a New York Democrat, noted that financial incentives are needed to overcome the tendency farmers have to conceal outbreaks.
"There has been no concerted effort, or at least no successful effort, to create an international financing mechanism to compensate farmers -- both commercial and subsistence -- for losses due to bird culling."
More than 50 percent of the 170 people infected so far with bird flu have died. All victims are believed to have had direct contact with infected birds. This makes culling a dangerous activity. To minimize the risk, the United States has distributed 20,000 pieces of protective clothing in Southeast Asia, Africa, the Caucasus and other parts of the world.
Kent Hill, of the U.S. Agency for International Development, says another one-and-half-million packets are on order. "This kind of packet of materials would include -- even though it's a small packet -- all sorts of things, including the gloves, the masks, the suits, the goggles, disinfectants, etc."
The hearing underscored that bird flu is not likely to simply disappear. And the participants said it is imperative that all outbreaks of the virus be reported immediately.