Avian flu conference brings urgent warnings

Feb 23, 2005 (CIDRAP News) – Warnings that H5N1 avian influenza could touch off a human flu pandemic rose in intensity as a major conference on the problem opened today in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, according to news services.

"We at WHO [the World Health Organization] believe that the world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic," Dr. Shigeru Omi, the WHO's Western Pacific regional director, was quoted as saying.

Officials from more than 20 countries have gathered for the 3-day meeting in the country hit hardest by avian flu. By the official WHO count, the virus has sickened 55 people and killed 42 of them since late 2003. Unofficial figures put the death toll at 45. Vietnam has had 37 cases, 29 of them fatal, according to the WHO.

Only two cases of probable human-to-human transmission of the virus have occurred so far. But experts fear that the virus will acquire the ability to spread readily among humans, which could spark the world's first flu pandemic since 1968-69.

"If the virus becomes highly contagious among humans, the health impact in terms of deaths and sickness will be enormous, and certainly much greater than SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome]," the Associated Press (AP) quoted Omi as saying.

He said all governments should develop preparedness plans to ensure the continuation of basic public services such as transportation, sanitation, and power in the event of a pandemic.

Omi said the virus has shown itself to be "very versatile and resilient." It has infected tigers and domestic cats, which were not believed to be susceptible to influenza, he noted.

Samuel Jutzi, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO's) director of animal production and health, warned that the H5N1 virus is well entrenched, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) report.

"We must assume that avian influenza will persist for many years in some of the countries that had disease outbreaks in 2004-2005," Jutzi was quoted as saying. He said both developed and developing countries should invest in battling the disease.

AFP reported that Joseph Domenech, also of the FAO, said it would take "many years" to eradicate the virus, but, "With more investment, it is possible to control the effect of the disease."

The conference was organized by the FAO, WHO, and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), according to the Vietnam News Agency (VNA).

VNA reported today that 12 of 35 Vietnamese provinces and cities recently affected by avian flu have gone 21 days with no new outbreaks. Ho Chi Minh City was listed as one of the 12.

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