Mar 6, 2006 (CIDRAP News) – As the H5N1 avian influenza virus continued to claim human victims, World Health Organization (WHO) and other experts met in Geneva today for a 3-day conference to hone the agency's pandemic response plan.
Human death toll reaches 95
The WHO has updated its avian flu case count to add the Mar 2 death in China of a 32-year-old man from Guangdong province. His case, suspected last week, was confirmed yesterday by Chinese authorities and noted today in a WHO announcement. It boosted the WHO's count of human cases to 175, with 95 deaths.
The case is the first identified from Guangdong, which is near Hong Kong, WHO said.
The news prompted Hong Kong authorities to suspend shipments of live poultry from Guangdong into Hong Kong for 3 weeks, according to Xinhua, China's government news agency. The story noted that Hong Kong usually imports 30,000 live birds a day from the neighboring province.
A senior WHO official in Beijing told a Canadian Press (CP) reporter yesterday there may be more human cases in China than the central ministry is reporting.
"It's very conceivable that there are more cases," said Dr. Henk Bekedam, the WHO representative in China. "But we do not have the impression, at least from the central ministry, that they are hiding information from the outside world."
If underreporting is occurring, it's likely due to central authorities lacking the full picture of the problem, he told CP. Bekedam added that he believes China has a capacity problem in trying to identify infected poultry and people.
"There are some big problems in a country like China," he said. "But our sense is when the central Ministry of Health knows about it and when they have done their confirmation test, that we are being informed."
In other avian flu news from China today, Health Minister Gao Qiang announced, "There is no human-to-human transmission of bird flu in China," according to the Filipino news service inq7.net.
In Indonesia, a pregnant woman who was being treated for avian flu-like symptoms died today in Jakarta, Bloomberg News reported. The story did not say when she was due to deliver but added that her child didn't survive.
In addition, a 10-year-old boy from Surakarta in Central Java, who was suspected of having avian flu, died Mar 4, the Jakarta Post noted today.
Meanwhile, Interfax news and other outlets reported yesterday that H5N1 is considered a possible culprit in the deaths of two people in Azerbaijan. Six members of the same family were being treated at a hospital there for suspected avian flu, Interfax reported. Two of them, both girls, died in the past few days, Azerbaijan's deputy health minister, Abbas Velibekov, told journalists.
"Those hospitalized have been diagnosed with acute pneumonia, but the cases arouse a great deal of suspicion," he told Interfax and other media on Sunday. The story did not cite other signs pointing to avian flu or say whether the family lived near previously noted bird outbreaks, but merely that laboratory testing was under way. Samples have also been sent to the WHO lab in England, the story noted.
In Iraq, U.S. military officials were cautioning American troops to take steps to prevent exposure to the avian flu virus, according to a Mar 3 story in the US military's Stars and Stripes Mideast edition.
Troops in Iraq—as well as military family members and civilians who work in areas known to have had avian flu—are being urged to avoid eating local poultry products and to seek medical care for suspicious signs and symptoms, the news service reported. (Two Iraqis are known to have died from H5N1.)
WHO works on rapid-response plan
Meanwhile in Geneva, a group of 30 WHO officials and other experts convened today for a 3-day technical meeting aimed at developing protocols for rapid containment and response to an emerging pandemic, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). They'll build their efforts from a draft plan released late in January. Proceedings from the closed meeting will not be released until Mar 15, said Dick Thompson, a WHO spokesman.
The H5N1 virus is unprecedented in its spread among animals, said Dr. Margaret Chan, who is leading WHO's avian flu response.
"Concern has mounted progressively and events in recent weeks justify that concern," Chan said in an Associated Press (AP) story today. The top priority is to prevent the virus from mutating into the effective human-to-human pathogen considered the harbinger of a pandemic.
"Should this effort fail, we want to ensure that measures are in place to mitigate the high levels of morbidity, mortality, and social and economic disruption that a pandemic can bring," the AP quoted Chan as saying.
The urgency of the situation was reflected in comments from other experts. Joseph Domenech, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) animal health service, told the AP that experts warned in 2004 that an international crisis was looming in Asia.
"We were asking for emergency funds and they never came," Domenech said. "We are constantly late."
Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO's director of epidemiologic and pandemic alert and response, described concerns over the global capacity to respond to the H5N1 threat.
"We truly feel that this present threat, and any other threat like it, is likely to stretch our global systems to the point of collapse," Ryan told the AP.
Mar 6 WHO situation update on China