Bird Flu Alarm

2005-12-30-After year of nasty surprises, world braces for more bird flu in 2006

Understanding Avian Influenza

2005-12-30-After year of nasty surprises, world braces for more bird flu in 2006

BEIJING : Bird flu cemented itself as one of the world's major health concerns in 2005 with dozens more deaths in Asia and the spread of the virus to Europe, sparking massive vaccination programmes and other emergency measures.

Although the much-feared threat of a global pandemic that could kill millions of people failed to materialise, experts continued to warn the H5N1 virus remained capable of a global assault in 2006.

"The world is now closer to another influenza pandemic than at any time since 1968, when the last of the previous century's three pandemics occurred," the World Health Organisation (WHO) said in its latest summary.

The WHO reported at least 38 deaths from more than 90 cases of the H5N1 strain in 2005, with all of the deaths in Asia and Vietnam again bearing the brunt of the disease.

Since late 2003, 43 people have died in Vietnam out of 93 reported infections there.

Elsewhere across Asia, China, Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia reported human bird flu fatalities in 2005, while the virus spread to Europe with it detected in birds from Russia to Turkey.

The WHO's total death toll across Asia stands at 73 from 141 cases since late 2003, although it had not officially updated the latest reported death in China announced on Thursday.

Although China was seen to have escaped relatively lightly in terms of the human impact in 2005, with three fatalities from seven cases, the Asian giant remained a feared flashpoint for a potential global pandemic.

With an annual production of 14 billion poultry, and most of the birds raised in "backyard farms" in close contact with humans, experts warned China provided the right conditions for a potentially disastrous mutation of the virus.

The virus is currently spread among animals and from animals to humans. The global pandemic would occur if H5N1 becomes easily transferrable between humans. Close contact between people and infected poultry raises that danger.

"We have to step up improvement of the primitive farming practice in China's rural regions, especially the backyard feeding of chickens and ducks in many rural households," WHO regional director Shigeru Omi said this month.

However the WHO generally praised China's intense approach to tackling the virus, which included the ambitious attempt to vaccinate the nation's entire poultry stock and the culling of more than 22 million birds.

In China and across the globe, governments also raced to stockpile inhibitor drugs such as Tamiflu, made by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche, that experts hope will be able to protect humans in the event of a pandemic.

However even as millions of Tamiflu and other retroviral drugs were produced around the world, concerns were raised about their effectiveness.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine this month warned the strategy of stockpiling Tamiflu to guard against a possible flu pandemic could lead to drug resistance, insufficient dosages and inadequate therapy.

The WHO also warned that, due to the cost of the drugs and the lack of manufacturing capacity, the world's poorest countries may not be able to receive the potentially life-saving drugs in time.

"On current trends ... most developing countries will have no access to a vaccine during the first wave of a pandemic and perhaps throughout its duration," the WHO said in a report in November.

Meanwhile, the debate over whether a pandemic would occur raged fiercely in 2005.

Bradford Frank, president of The Frank Group, a Lakewood, New York-based business contingency planning consulting firm, said a pandemic sometime soon was almost certain.

The increase in cases of H5N1 in both animals and humans and the geographic spread accelerated dramatically in 2004 and 2005, while the number of species that became infected also increased significantly, Frank told AFP.

"Given the virulence of the current H5N1 subspecies, coupled with the basic high rate of mutations of the virus, the fact that the virus didn't go 'human-to-human' (in 2005) was the biggest surprise," he said.

However J.J. Giambrone, a professor of poultry health at Auburn University in Alabama, said the fact the virus had not yet become easily transmissible among humans showed a pandemic in 2006 was unlikely.

"This virus has been circulating in Asia for five years and still cannot be transmitted from person to person," he said.

Henry Niman, a Pittsburgh-based bird flu expert and founder of Recombinomics, a company that develops vaccines for viruses, said the most urgent task in 2006 was to ensure speedy global information sharing.

"Unfortunately, sharing of information in 2005 has been much slower than 2004, in spite of the fact that the number of outbreaks is increasing and the H5N1 is becoming more diverse genetically," Niman said.

Understanding Avian Influenza