More than 30 countries have reported outbreaks of avian influenza and the number of people dying every month is increasing, with the toll reaching 151, according to Dr. David Nabarro of the U.N. System Influenza Coordination office.
Nabarro reaffirmed earlier this week that his warning last year that a mutation of the virulent H5N1 virus which has ravaged poultry stocks since late 2003 could appear anytime and cause an influenza pandemic in humans that kills millions of people was not "overblown."
"There will be influenza pandemic one day. I don't know, you don't know, when it will be. When it does come along, it will have really major economic and social consequences," he said at a news conference. "The one absolutely requirement for this is that we have to get prepared."
He said that in his entire career he had never seen a greater concerted international effort to combat an issue than he had this year in fighting bird flu and preparing for an influenza pandemic.
According to official statistics, the highly-pathogenic H5N1 virus has affected poultry all over the world except the Western hemisphere and has killed tens of millions of chickens, ducks, geese and other birds. Nabarro recounted that this year more than 30 countries reported outbreaks. He noted that 256 people are known to have been infected and 151 have died since 2003.
"The trendline is that the number of deaths per month seems to be increasing at the moment globally and that is primarily because of quite a lot of human death in Indonesia," he said at the news conference.
Nabarro estimated that the H5N1 avian influenza virus will remain a major animal health issue for most of the world for at least five years, and perhaps 10 years, because it is very virulent but at the same time can survive in certain communities of birds without symptoms for long periods. In addition, he said, bird flu seems to be spread by a combination of wild birds that migrate and trade in infected birds.
Nabarro emphasized that one key to fighting bird flu is to change the way people and countries raise chickens and ducks, and experts believe it will take five to 10 years to change poultry rearing practices, especially in countries where poultry is plentiful and birds are kept in the backyard.
NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA NEED TO BE 'VERY VIGILANT' While the Western hemisphere has escaped bird flu so far, the U.N. health official advised countries in North and South America to be "very vigilant" in the coming winter months when birds start migrating south from Alaska, through the Mississippi River area and then south.
Nabarro said countries on another migratory route south from Siberia to Ukraine, the Black Sea and the Middle East must also be on alert for infected birds.
"Government ministers are all aware it is their responsibility to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic and get on top of the avian influenza and they're doing it really very energetically," he said.
There have been "huge efforts" by governments in many countries to stop trade in birds, which might be infected by H5N1, to restrict movements, to keep different groups of birds apart, and to cull birds when outbreaks occur, he said, adding that this means that government understand how to anticipate and deal with outbreaks.
Nabarro, indicating that the U.N. will not stop its vigilance on this issue, said he looked at the present time "as a wonderful breathing space in which we can get prepared so that when the pandemic comes we can deal with it."
He called for increased assistance, especially for Africa and Indonesia, which accounts for about a third of the human deaths and remains a country of great concern with bird flu in 30 of 33 provinces, Nabarro said.