WHO Warns of Dire Flu Pandemic

BANGKOK, Thailand -- The World Health Organization has issued a dramatic warning that bird flu will trigger an international pandemic that could kill up to seven million people.

The influenza pandemic could occur anywhere from next week to the coming years, WHO said.

"There is no doubt there will be another pandemic," Klaus Stohr of the WHO Global Influenza Program said on the sidelines of a regional bird flu meeting in Bangkok, Thailand.

"Even with the best case scenario, the most optimistic scenario, the pandemic will cause a public health emergency with estimates which will put the number of deaths in the range of two and seven million," he said.

"The number of people affected will go beyond billions because between 25 percent and 30 percent will fall ill."

Pandemics occur when a completely new flu strain emerges for which humans have no immunity.

With a human vaccine to the bird flu virus not expected until March 2005 at the earliest, urgency is being placed on containment.

"The countries that have the weakest health systems are in need of most support and clearly, usually it's together the poorest countries who have the least resources to invest in health," Dr. Bjorn Melgaard, head of WHO's Southeast Asia office, said.

The dire flu warning came ahead of a two-day meeting of regional health ministers in Bangkok, looking at how to pool efforts to combat a future outbreak.

It also comes just a few months after the first probable instance of human-to-human transmission of the bird-flu virus emerged.

The virus killed 32 people in Thailand and Vietnam earlier this year and led to the slaughter of millions of poultry birds across the region.

Pandemics usually occur every 20 to 30 years when the genetic makeup of a flu strain changes so dramatically that people have little or no immunity built up from previous flu bouts.

"During the last 36 years, there has been no pandemic, and there is a conclusion now that we are closer to the next pandemic than we have ever been before," Stohr told reporters.

"There is no reason to believe that we are going to be spared."

Stohr said if bird flu triggers the next pandemic, the virus would likely originate in Asia.

"An influenza pandemic will spare nobody. Every country will be affected," he said.

There have been three pandemics in the 20th century, all spread worldwide within a year of being detected.

The worst was the Spanish flu in 1918-19, when as many as 50 million people worldwide are thought to have died, nearly half of them young, healthy adults.

The Asian flu pandemic of 1957 claimed nearly 700,000 lives in the United States and one million worldwide after spreading from China.

In 1968, the Hong Kong flu pandemic is also said to have killed around one million.

Both pandemics were believed to be mutations of pig viruses.

It is important that countries act quickly to guard against a possible pandemic and take stock of their inventories of antivirals, Stohr said.

Scientists are busy working on vaccines for bird flu and other viruses. Two U.S. companies have said they plan to test experimental bird flu vaccines from January.

Thai health officials said Wednesday they expected that a vaccine to protect humans from bird flu would be ready by 2007, The Associated Press reports .

Health ministers and senior officials from 10 Southeast Asian countries, along with China, Japan and South Korea, are among the more than 100 people attending this week's meeting to develop strategies against flu and other infectious diseases.

-- 11-25-2004