A deadly new global pandemic of human influenza is inevitable and suffering will be “incalculable” unless the world is ready, the chief of the UN health agency said today.
The World Bank put the possible economic cost at a minimum of €664bn.
“We have been experiencing a relentless spread of avian flu” among migratory birds and domestic poultry, Lee Jong-wook, director-general of the World Health Organisation, told a meeting of 600 health experts and planners, the first attempt to devise a global strategy in case the bird flu virus changes to transmit easily between humans.
Lee stressed that a human flu pandemic has yet to begin anywhere in the world.
“However, the signs are clear that is coming,” he said, noting that a changed avian flu virus caused the deadly “Spanish” flu pandemic that killed tens of millions of people in 1918-1919.
Already the virulent H5N1 strain of avian flu, which appeared in Hong Kong in 1997, is killing birds in 15 countries of Europe and Asia, he said.
“It is only a matter of time before an avian flu virus – most likely H5N1 - acquires the ability to be transmitted from human to human, sparking the outbreak of human pandemic influenza,” Lee said.
He said the world had to be prepared.
“This is the time for every country to prepare their national action pan - and act on it,” Lee said. “If we are unprepared, the next pandemic will cause incalculable human misery – both directly from the loss of human life and indirectly through its widespread impact on security. No society will be exempt. No economy would be left unscathed.”
Estimates of the number of people who would die in a new pandemic have varied widely between two million and 360 million, but WHO says a reasonable maximum would be 7.4 million.
A senior World Bank economist said a pandemic could cause world gross domestic product to drop by 2% or more. That would amount to about €664bn over the course of a year, said Milan Brahmbhatt.
About 60% of countries have a pandemic preparedness plan, but in most cases it is only a piece of paper, and those plans “need to move to exercise and rehearsal,” said Mike Ryan, WHO’s outbreak response director.
Although bird flu has recurred over the years, scientists have been watching H5N1 since its impact on humans started to be noticed. In early 2004 officials announced that three people – an adult and two children – had died from the disease in Vietnam.
Since then, more than 120 people, most of whom were in close contact with poultry, have come down with the disease in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia, WHO says. More than half of the people infected have died.
More than 150 million chickens and other poultry have died or been culled, but that has not halted the spread of the disease to birds in central Asia, Russia and eastern Europe.
Samuel Jutzi of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation said the cost to the economies of the affected countries from the poultry losses is estimated above €8.85bn.
Killing more chickens and other farm birds would come at a time when demand for animal protein has been growing “at an exponential rate,” Jutzi said.
“Global poultry bird population stands at 18 billion today, up from 14 billion 10 years ago.”
Representatives from China, Vietnam and Indonesia, among countries so far hardest hit by bird flu, pointed to increasing costs for containing the disease, including rising expenses from compensating farmers for culled animals, surveying the spread of the disease and paying for large-scale bird vaccination campaigns.
They also said small-scale farming makes it hard to contain the disease and imposes severe hardship on families whose flocks are culled.
Around the world, governments have been making plans in case the virus mutates into one that easily transmits among people. Developing a vaccine is hampered because it is unknown exactly what form the deadly virus would take, so many governments are stocking up on antiviral drugs that work against regular flu and are believed to be the best immediate weapon to confront a pandemic until a vaccine can be produced.
Preparations are also being made to protect domestic poultry flocks by requiring that they be kept under cover or vaccinated.