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World: Concern Mounts Over Possible Flu Pandemic

International concern is growing over the possible outbreak of an avian influenza (bird flu) epidemic. Last week, United Nations officials warned that bird flu, which has so far killed nearly 70 people mostly in Asia, could mutate into a form that could kill tens of millions of people worldwide, particularly in the Middle East. As Asian nations prepare to meet later this month to discuss planning for a potential outbreak, President George W. Bush told the U.S. Congress on 4 October that the military may be required to enforce quarantines in the event of an epidemic. U.S. scientists, meanwhile, are reporting today they have now discovered that the world’s last major flu pandemic -- which killed 50 million people in 1918 -- was a strain of bird flu that jumped to humans.

Prague, 5 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It’s not a question of if, but when, according to Dr. David Nabarro, the UN official tasked with preparing the world for a bird flu outbreak.

Nabarro sounded the alarm on 30 September. He told a news conference in New York that a pandemic is growing more likely -- and that it could kill up to 150 million people.

“[A pandemic] is likely to be caused by a mutant of the virus that's currently causing bird flu in Asia -- the short form is H5N1 -- which has already, as I have said, resulted in millions of poultry deaths and billions of dollars of economic loss,” Nabarro said.

Nabarro’s comments were so alarming that the World Health Organization felt the need to qualify them a few hours later. Speaking the same day in Geneva, spokesman Dick Thompson said the WHO estimates any pandemic would likely kill between 2 million and 7.4 million people worldwide.

"There is a range of expert opinion about the number of possible deaths, should a human pandemic evolve. Dr. Nabarro was giving that range of expert opinion," Thompson said. "All of this is guess work. Nobody knows, and we're not going to know how lethal the next pandemic is going to be until the pandemic actually begins."

Yet that is precisely the problem: Nobody knows. However, experts do believe the world is long overdue for a pandemic -- whether it’s from bird flu or another virus.

“The risk is real. In the last century, we have seen three major pandemic outbreaks of influenza, killing tens of millions of people. And there’s no reason whatsoever that this would not happen again," Dr. Albert Osterhaus of the Institute of Virology in Rotterdam told RFE/RL. "And I think what we see happening now with the H5N1 infections of humans could be just be a prelude to the next pandemic, although we cannot be 100 percent sure. We cannot be sure that the H5N1 virus will be at the basis of the next pandemic.”

So far, since 2003, Asian bird flu has killed nearly 70 people worldwide, with the latest death reported in Vietnam this week. All victims, however, are believed to have contracted it through contact with infected birds, which have also been found in Russia and Europe.

Any pandemic would be of immense concern to the entire world. But experts like Nabarro say that bird migratory patterns and poultry-raising methods put certain areas more at risk.
"If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country? And how do you then enforce a quarantine?" -- Bush

Many observers fear that birds carrying the virus will migrate from Asia to the Middle East, and cause widespread infections in a region where many families raise their own poultry.

“We are focusing very strongly on the whole world," Nabarro said. "This is a global issue, not just an Asian issue. We're starting in Asia but we're going to be focusing on the whole world. The Middle East is a particular set of challenges because if the virus gets into the bird population in the Middle East because of the domestication of poultry, there are real risks.”

In Canberra today, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australia will host a regional meeting at the end of this month to discuss an Asia-Pacific response to bird flu.

But the concerns extend across the globe. In Washington, President Bush spent a large part of a rare news conference yesterday discussing the possibility of a pandemic. Bush confirmed that the White House is making special preparations for a flu outbreak. And he said he had asked Congress for the authority to use the military to enforce a quarantine, should that be necessary.

“The policy decisions for a president dealing with an avian flu outbreak are difficult," Bush said. "One example: If we had an outbreak somewhere in the United States, do we not then quarantine that part of the country? And how do you then enforce a quarantine? It's one thing to shut down your airplanes; it's another thing to prevent people from coming in to get exposed to the avian flu. And who best to be able to effect a quarantine? One option is the use of a military [force] that's able to plan and move.”

Meanwhile, "The New York Times” reported today that following a closed-door briefing last week with health officials, the U.S. Senate tacked onto a Pentagon spending bill an extra $3.9 billion for flu preparations. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, are expected to introduce a measure today to create a pandemic response coordinator.

Some of this may be politics. After all, U.S. officials were strongly criticized over their response last month to Hurricane Katrina, which killed over 1,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.

But it may also make sense, as a new study appears to confirm.

U.S. researchers, in a study published today in the journal “Science,” reported an ominous finding about the 1918 pandemic. They said the “Spanish flu,” which killed up to 50 million people, was actually a strain of bird flu that had mutated and jumped to humans.

(Farangiz Najibullah of RFE/RL’s Tajik Service contributed to this report.)

See also:

Experts Say Risks Of Avian Influenza Reaching Europe Too Remote To Spark Measures

Bird Flu Threatens Globe, But Might Never Spread

Bird Flu FAQ