Prague, 7 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Jong Wonk Lee, the director of the World Health Organization (WHO), has warned that the deadly avian flu virus H5N1 is certain to mutate into a strain that can be transmitted from birds to humans.
Lee told a gathering of more than 500 health experts and policy makers in Geneva today that it is not known when the bird flu virus will mutate. But Lee says such a mutation is inevitable -- and has the potential to ignite a human influenza pandemic.
"Reducing the risk [of] human pandemic is only going to happen by
controlling the disease in animal. And right now that is
going in the wrong direction."
At least 150 million birds have been killed in the last two years in an attempt to control the disease. Bird flu remains mostly an animal disease. Only 120 cases in humans have been confirmed around the globe. Of those, 62 people have died from the disease, all in Asia. Scientists say that Asia, where farmers and city residents live side-by-side with poultry and livestock, is the most crucial area in the global fight against bird flu.
The Genevea conference is an attempt to come up with an international strategy and prevent a pandemic. WHO spokesman Dick Thompson told RFE/RL that the goal of the three-day event is to find a way to coordinate the many different attempts to fight avian influenza.
"The objectives are to develop an action plan -- where do we go from here and how do we get there," he said. "In the last 10 weeks there's been a series of national meetings, regional meetings, and international meetings. What we plan on doing here is to bring the people who have been to all these meetings together and figure out where do we go from here and how do we finance that."
Thompson says attempts to control avian flu in animals during the past two years have failed because they have been "piecemeal" efforts. He says global surveillance must be strengthened to quickly confirm outbreaks of bird flu and help people in the afflicted areas take the right measures.
"I think that people understand this is a serious problem," he said. "And they've actually understood that because of the meetings that have been held in the last 10 weeks. And now they're all looking for steps forward -- how they can work together. How this can be organized. And that's what is going to be hammered out here."
Thompson says some aspects of a unified global strategy against bird flu will cost a lot of money. But others merely require better communication among government officials and the public.
"Reducing the risk from human pandemic is only going to happen by controlling the disease in animals," he said. "And right now, that is going in the wrong direction. We see the disease widespread in Asia. And now it has started reaching into Europe. What we need to do is to control the disease in animals to lower the risk to humans. But if that can't be done, the second objective is to move on with pandemic preparedness plans."
WHO officials in Beijing have confirmed that China has asked for help to investigate three cases in which the H5N1 virus -- the bird flu virus -- is suspected of killing people. In Beijing, the WHO's Dr. Julie Hall said tests of the three did not show the H5N1 virus. But she says tests on the brother of a 12-year-old girl who died of pneumonia suggest that he might be infected.
"What China has done is to continue that investigation -- to continue to take tests," she said. "And now they're reporting that on the nine-year-old boy there is something that is called a 'suspicious positive.' That is not a confirmation at this stage. But it does require further investigation. And they've requested assistance from WHO with this ongoing investigation."
Hall said WHO is pleased that the Chinese government has requested its assistance: "These things are complex. They are difficult. But I think there is a commitment on behalf of the government to respond effectively to the problems of avian influenza and to engage with the international community to help with this global effort to contain avian influenza in the animals -- and to prepare for any potential influenza pandemic in the future."
China has been criticized for its attempts to cover up an outbreak of SARS in 2003. But the Chinese government seems to be taking a different approach on bird flu.
Beijing's poultry markets were emptied of livestock today as authorities stepped up prevention measures. In Liaoning Province authorities have killed some 6 million birds following confirmation of the avian flu in poultry there.