The threat of a bird flu pandemic is growing daily, but an outbreak among humans is not inevitable if countries and health bodies respond quickly enough, a top World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Thursday.
Fears have been growing about the H5N1 avian flu virus spreading to more countries after a spate of infections in Turkey, the first cases in humans outside Asia.
“As the new cases of human infection with the H5N1 virus in Turkey show, the situation is worsening with each passing month and the threat of an influenza pandemic is continuing to grow every day,” said Shigeru Omi, WHO’s regional director for the Western Pacific.
He was addressing a gathering of Asian countries and international organizations holding two days of talks in Tokyo that began on Thursday.
“We must try to ensure that we will be ready to respond instantly with all the weapons at our disposal should the early signs of an influenza pandemic appear,” Omi said, noting that Asia was still the epicenter of the threat to global health.
WHO officials said the international body would set up a global task force of experts outside the Organization within the next few months to advise it in tackling any potential pandemic.
“If we can achieve this rapid response, we may have a good chance of halting the spread of the virus before the situation becomes uncontrollable, or at least of slowing it down. But if we fail, the consequences for societies, economies and global public health could be immeasurable,” Omi added.
At least 78 people are confirmed to have died of bird flu since late 2003, mostly in Southeast Asia and China. But it has also killed at least two children in Turkey.
Scientists say the H5N1 virus remains relatively hard for people to catch and is spread almost exclusively through contact with birds, but there are fears it could mutate into a form which could kill millions of people.
Separately, a senior U.N. official said poor countries and international organizations need about $1.5 billion to help fight bird flu and prepare for a possible pandemic in humans.
Dr. David Nabarro, the U.N. coordinator on avian and human influenza, initially expressed confidence that countries would give more than $1 billion at next week’s first international donors conference to finance efforts to combat the disease. But he later hedged his expectations for the Jan. 17-18 meeting in Beijing, co-sponsored by the Chinese government, the World Bank and the European Commission.
Nabarro said Wednesday he was expecting “a significant contribution from the United States” and donations from “some unconventional countries,” which he refused to identify.
“Fingers-crossed, it’s going to be a good-sized pledge,” Nabarro said. “I think most countries are aware of the seriousness and the need to move money to poor countries.”
Nabarro stressed the $1.4 billion to $1.5 billion needed now was “a beginning,” based on estimates from the World Bank and others, and that much more would be needed in the case of a pandemic.
Developing countries need more than $1 billion of that to cope with the disease and prepare for any possible pandemic, he said. International institutions also require funds, especially the World Health Organization, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health, he said.
At the conference, the WHO presented a scenario of a human pandemic and necessary responses to it, emphasizing the need to strengthen detection and reporting.
The WHO believes weak surveillance was one factor behind the sudden outbreak in Turkey and sees early warning as vital.
“The way we are doing this now is too late,” Hitoshi Oshitani, a medical doctor and WHO consultant, said, noting that in recent cases it had taken an average of more than 16 days for local authorities to notify the WHO of a bird flu outbreak.
“We must shorten the duration between detection and reporting so we can contain the virus,” he said, adding that it should be less than two weeks.
He said distribution of anti-viral drugs and quarantine of affected areas would be effective in containing a pandemic.
But Omi cautioned delegates about relying on the drugs, such as Tamiflu made by Roche AG, or on vaccines that scientists around the world are now working on.
“Vaccines and anti-viral drugs are very effective. But they are not panaceas,” he said, adding that countries must build the capacity to respond quickly.
Experts also still do not know how effective Tamiflu would be against a virus that would easily travel among humans and what the right dosage would be.
“Right now, we just don’t know,” said Keiji Fukuda, an official with the WHO’s global influenza program.
In addition to Asian nations, those taking part in the meeting include Britain and the United States, as well as aid bodies such as the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.