19 October 2005 As the world mobilizes to combat a potential deadly human bird flu pandemic, the risk of the virus spreading to the Middle East and African countries has markedly increased after the confirmed outbreaks in Romania and Turkey, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned today.
“One of our major concerns is now the potential spread of avian influenza through migratory birds to northern and eastern Africa,” FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech said. “There is serious risk that this scenario may become a reality.”
Middle Eastern and North African countries should be able to build a line of defence against bird flu and FAO is more concerned about eastern Africa, where veterinary services, due to various constraints, could have more difficulty to run efficient campaigns based on slaughtering infected animals and vaccination.
“The countries concerned and the international community have to make every effort to ensure that bird flu does not become endemic in Africa,” he said. “If the virus were to become endemic in eastern Africa, it could increase the risk of the virus to evolve through mutation or reassortment into a strain that could be transmitted to and between humans.”
Ever since the first human case of bird flu, linked to widespread poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand, was reported in January last year, UN health officials have warned that the H5N1 virus could evolve into a global influenza pandemic if it mutates into a form which could transmit easily between people.
The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1920 is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people worldwide. In the present outbreak, there have been more than 110 reported human H5N1 cases, about 60 of them fatal, all in South-East Asia. Some 140 million domestic birds have died or been culled in an effort to curb the spread.
“The close proximity between people and animals and insufficient surveillance and disease control capacities in eastern African countries create an ideal breeding ground for the virus,” Mr. Domenech said. “The countries urgently need international assistance to build up basic surveillance and control systems.”
The risk to European countries due to wild birds is relatively low at present, but migratory birds could carry the disease to western and northern Europe next spring if wild bird populations are infected during their stay in southern regions, FAO said. Veterinary services in Europe are very efficient and strong surveillance and disease control measures are in place to face this risk.
“It is crucial to remind that the epicentre of the disease currently remains in South-East Asia where the virus continues to circulate in several countries and where a pandemic could finally start if the control of the disease in animals is not successful,” Mr. Domenech warned.
Meanwhile, the UN World Tourism Organization (WTO) is to meet with the UN World Health Organization (WHO) to minimize the threat of a bird flu epidemic to the international tourism, which was worth $622 billion last year, spent by more than 763 million tourists, and is projected to expand at an annual rate of nearly six per cent.
“We must ensure that people are not deterred from travelling without good reason,” WTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli said. “Unnecessary scaremongering can cause a sharp drop in tourism that squeezes the economies, especially those of developing nations and the incomes of millions of workers in this industry.
“Our message is not to overreact or panic, but at the same time not to underestimate the problem,” he added, calling on the media to refrain from reporting that creates unnecessary panic and on governments to issue travel advisories only as a last resort.