Bird flu pushed back – but threat of a human pandemic remains
A veterinary officer inspects live ducks in
a market in Viet Nam.
FAO/Hoang Dinh Nam
The avian flu virus spread rapidly after first appearing in 2003, but a prompt international response has led to the disease being contained. However, since outbreaks continue to be reported in a wide range of countries and the threat of a virus mutation affecting humans could still sweep across the world, urgent preparations to plan for this remain critical.
Apart from occasional news stories about a new outcrop of bird flu, the threat of a global pandemic has receded from the world’s headlines. Complacency is dangerous - there remains a continuing risk of a virus mutation which could allow it to be easily transmitted among humans causing a global pandemic with millions of lives at risk. Over the last three years, the avian flu virus has spread rapidly in East Asia, where it first erupted, and then on to locations in North and West Africa, moving to central Europe and as far west as the United Kingdom. This highly pathogenic avian influenza was reported in 15 countries in 2005. By 2006 it was found in at least 55 countries and territories. More than 200 million chickens were culled in the effort to control the outbreak. Rural economies suffered, and people of modest income frequently faced shortages of their main protein source. An international response began immediately after the first outbreak and intensified with the establishment in 2005 of a UN System Influenza Coordinator (UNSIC), leading to improved responses to outbreaks in poultry in many countries during the last year. By mid-2007, prevention and control strategies developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health had been adopted by many countries. Working with national governments, by the end of 2007, they reduced to six the number of countries in which the disease is known to be entrenched. Intensive control efforts – including vaccination of poultry – are being mounted in these settings to get the disease under control and eliminate outbreaks when they occur. Under present conditions, most other countries are able to control outbreaks when they occur. While this tough, resilient virus isn’t making the news, bird flu has not gone away nor is it less lethal. What we have now is breathing room to make urgent preparations.
- The 2005 appointment of Dr. David Nabarro as UN Senior Influenza Coordinator was a response by the UN system to address the rapid spread of bird flu that year, and the rising threat of a mutation-caused pandemic. Rather than establish a new organization from the ground up, UNSIC was organized as a small team based in several continents with the mandate of coordinating the activities of more than a dozen UN agencies, and in turn meshing the work of the UN with national governments and other international agencies and donors.
- Through the end of 2007, there have been only 243 known human deaths from the avian influenza virus – but that is 70 per cent of a total of 345 reported cases.
- The pandemic threat has led most governments to improve services to detect, contain and lessen the impact of dangerous pathogens. However, many national pandemic plans are not sufficiently operational and the coordination of pandemic planning between countries needs greater attention.
- David Nabarro notes that many of the world’s newly emerging diseases are crossing over from the animal kingdom to humans. "Controlling disease in animals lies at the root of preventing human infections and reducing the probability of a pandemic," Dr. Nabarro says. "There is a need for professionals who work on animal and human health, environmental health, food safety and crisis management to work together so as to ensure the world is better prepared for diseases that threaten the security of the human race."
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