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Were bird flu fears overblown?

/ Source: news services

Fears of a flu pandemic originating from the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus were overblown, the head of the World Organization for Animal Health said Thursday.

The Paris-based body — an intergovernmental organization responsible for improving animal health worldwide — has been at the forefront of global efforts to monitor and fight H5N1, which scientists have tracked because they fear it may mutate into a human flu virus that starts a pandemic.

But "the risk was overestimated," said Bernard Vallat, director general of the animal health organization, also known as the OIE.

Vallat said the H5N1 virus has proved extremely stable, despite concerns that it could mutate into a form that could spread easily among humans.

"We have never seen such a stable strain," Vallat said.

He said concerns a few years ago that a flu pandemic from H5N1 might be imminent lacked scientific proof.

"It was just nonscientific supposition," he told reporters.

Prepare for pandemic

At the same time, the United Nations influenza coordinator said that governments around the world need to do more to prepare for the dramatic economic impact of the next flu pandemic.

On Thursday David Nabarro said his team had recently collected information from nearly 150 countries to see how prepared they were for a pandemic and the picture was mixed.

“Most countries have now focused on pandemic as a potential cause of catastrophe and have done some planning. But the quality of the plans is patchy and too few of them pay attention to economic and social consequences,” he told BBC radio.

“The economic consequences could be up to $2 trillion -- up to 5 percent of global GDP removed,” he said, reiterating previous World Bank and UN estimates.

Nabarro will deliver a lecture at the London School of Economics later on Thursday on the global state of preparedness for any pandemic.

Father infected by son

Separately, a Chinese man who died of bird flu last month likely passed the disease on to his father, but there is no evidence the virus mutated into a form which can be easily passed between humans, an official said Thursday.

The man in the eastern province of Jiangsu was diagnosed with the H5N1 strain of bird flu days after his 24-year-old son died from the disease.

This rare case of two family members struck by the disease drew concern from health authorities, because humans almost always contract H5N1 from infected birds.

H5N1 has infected more than 340 people and killed at least 212 since 2003, mostly in Asia. The virus strain does not easily spread between people, however, and most patients had been infected through close contact with sick poultry.

With the world’s biggest poultry population and millions of backyard birds, China is at the centre of the fight against bird flu. There have been other cases of human infection without confirmed outbreaks among birds in the same area.

The latest cases in China brought the number of confirmed human infections of bird flu in China to 27, with 17 deaths.

'Always be a risk'

While playing down concerns of a pandemic, Vallat said bird flu "will always be a risk" — not just H5N1, but also other strains that could mutate and become more virulent for animals.

He said vaccination campaigns were needed in countries where H5N1 has become endemic, including Indonesia, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Nigeria.

Risks from H5N1 would be "greatly diminished" if the virus were eradicated in these countries, which have become "reservoirs" for bird flu, he said.