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World: Worries Grow Over Danger Of Flu Pandemic

  • Don Hill

International public-health officials say the world is overdue for an influenza pandemic -- a worldwide epidemic -- that could kill millions of people. The UN's World Health Organization has been sounding the alarm for more than a year. The authoritative science journal "Nature" reports in its latest issue that the conditions to trigger a devastating pandemic are already in place now in Vietnam. But, says "Nature," governments are underestimating the danger, and research to deal with the threat is dangerously underfunded.

Prague, 12 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The nations of the world began planning this week to spend millions of dollars on a global tsunami warning system to minimize future death and destruction like that caused by last month's disaster in South Asia, which killed more than 150,000 people.

But Peter Aldhous, an editor at the British-based science journal "Nature," warns that funding is sluggish and research is limited into a looming avian flu epidemic that could kill millions of people.

A particularly virulent influenza epidemic in Asia last year devastated great flocks of domestic birds -- mainly chickens and ducks. In a number of cases, the disease infected humans and, since late 2003, it has killed 23 people -- three in the past two weeks.
"There's no doubt there will be another pandemic. Whether it is going to happen this year or next, we don't know."

In each of the human infection cases so far, it appears that the disease traveled from a bird to a human victim. What experts fear is that the virus -- designated H5N1 -- will mutate into a highly contagious form that could easily spread from one human to another.

Aldhous reports that when the danger first became evident in Vietnam, teams of outside experts flooded in to work with local officials. But that initial momentum did not last.

"Today, the crisis teams that visited Vietnam after the initial outbreak back a year ago have long since departed. The problem is that the ingredients to brew a pandemic strain of influenza are still in place in that country. And potentially, we could get a strain that is both as deadly as H5N1 avian flu, but spreads very easily among people. And that is why there's a real need for continued surveillance and monitoring there on the ground in Vietnam," Aldhous says.

Marie Cheng is a spokeswoman for the World Health Organization's (WHO) communicable disease section in Geneva. She confirms that international attention to the threat posed by the flu has waned.

"I think it is probably a fair assessment. I mean, when we had the surge in bird flu cases last year, certainly there was response on the part of the global community. But, you know, as these cases kind of trickled out and we didn't see the emergence of a pandemic strain, certainly it, you know, moved lower on the priority list," Cheng says.

Specialists at the WHO have been sounding the alarm for more than a year. The head of the WHO's influenza project, Klaus Stohr, spoke last month about the dangers.

"There's no doubt there will be another pandemic. Whether it is going to happen this year or next, we don't know. Whether it is going to be H5N1or another one, we don't know," Stohr says.

Cheng says interest has faded because nothing dramatic has occurred in the past few months.

"This is at the same point where we were last year. You know, we have all the same elements necessary to spark a pandemic. We have avian influenza circulating at the same time as human influenza. And there's always the risk that these two may mix somehow and create a strain that is very dangerous and very transmittable among humans," Cheng says.

Scientists are puzzled by some of the findings of their research into the virus.

There is evidence that the gravest danger of a bird-specific virus mutating into one that is contagious among humans may occur when the virus migrates from birds to another animal host, such as pigs, before moving on to people.

Others scientists have found data indicating the present virus is more likely to sicken children and young adults, suggesting older people may have developed some immunity due to past exposure.

Still other researchers have noted that -- at least in experiments on animals -- the virus seems to be increasing in deadliness.

These findings would seem to justify more research. But Aldhous says that, despite the gravity of the threat, the money just isn't there.

"There are a lot of fairly troubling results from the research that has been done so far. There are big gaps in our knowledge. But actually getting funding for research there on the ground in Vietnam is proving very tough. That may be because in the developed world we tend to think of this as a far away, Southeast Asian problem," Aldhous says.

The "Nature" editor says such a perspective could be a big mistake. It's an international problem and should be attracting international energy to solve it.

Another major science publication, "Scientific American," reports in its January edition on a different avenue of research into pandemic flu. Pathologists from the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology have acquired samples of the virus that caused the first and greatest influenza pandemic ever recorded.

That was the flu outbreak of 1918 and 1919. It began in a World War I training camp near the northeastern U.S. city of Boston, infected one-third of the camp of 45,000 soldiers and killed 800 of them. Before it ended, it had spread around the globe and was believed to have infected one-third of the world's population.

In those years, before antibiotics, the flu killed perhaps one out of every 20 people it infected. Conservative estimates put the number of dead at between 20-40 million people.

The military pathologists are studying the mutations that enabled the virus to appear suddenly in a form not previously encountered by most people's immune systems. They hope to arm themselves with information that will keep a possible flu pandemic in 2005 or 2006 from emulating the disaster of 1918.