Bird flu pandemic inevitable, says WHO

Asia menaced as winter approaches

The World Health Organisation (WHO) yesterday warned that a pandemic of the bird flu strain lethal to humans is inevitable, and would likely kill between one and seven million people worldwide, Reuters reports.

Dr. Jai P. Narain, Director of WHO's communicable diseases department, took time out from a Southeast Asia health summit in Sri Lanka to tell the press: "We may be at almost the last stage before the pandemic virus may emerge. Whether the avian influenza pandemic will occur, that is not the question any more, [but] as to when the pandemic will occur."

The current human death toll in Asia from bird flu is 63 - 44 in Vietnam, 12 in Thailand, four in Cambodia and three in Indonesia. Of these, only Thailand has a pandemic preparedness plan, with "a stockpile of anti-viral drugs", explained Narain.

Bird flu has now reached six Russian regions and Kazakhstan, wiping out 14,000 fowl. Narain noted that "migrating birds posed a serious risk of spreading avian flu around the world and Asia was very vulnerable as winter approaches", adding: "The virus has been detected in migratory birds in some former Soviet states where these birds traditionally fly toward Asia to escape the cold winter months."

Narain warned that scientists were now concerned not just about poultry, but a "whole range of bird species".

Russia, meanwhile, has struggled to contain an outbreak of bird flu in the Urals, which it believes could spread west with migrating birds. In Holland, the authorites recently ordered all free-range hens, ducks and geese to be kept indoors at night in an attempt to protect them from possible infection. ®

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