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Why bird flu is not an old story

If sporadic reports of human deaths from bird flu in China and sick poultry in northeast India bore you, a chat with Dr Hans Troedsson could change your mind, writes Reshma Patil.

world Updated: Feb 20, 2009 00:44 IST
Reshma Patil

If sporadic reports of human deaths from bird flu in China and sick poultry in northeast India bore you, a chat with Dr Hans Troedsson could change your mind.

The chief representative of the World Health Organisation in China has a worst-case scenario if the H5N1 avian influenza virus learnt to transmit efficiently from person to person and start a pandemic or a global epidemic of deadly influenza.

In January, China reported eight unconnected human cases and five deaths from bird flu, from northern Beijing to the southwest. Dead birds tested positive in Hong Kong. There was no sign that it was the start of a pandemic. The virus just maintained its seasonal pattern of high winter activity.

But if a pandemic did occur, where would you escape? Nowhere.

Airports and airplanes would become hubs to transmit the clever virus, which scientists are struggling to understand since its reemergence in 2003. “All nations would be affected within three to four months. No one could escape it,” Troedsson told a group of foreign media in Beijing this week. “It is impossible to predict how many deaths, but there would be plenty”.

In Troedsson’s worst-case scenario, hospitals would collapse, drugs would be unavailable, offices, schools, cinemas, markets and public transport would shutdown and the supply of public utilities would be erratic. In the best case, there would be few deaths, limited airline operations and hospitals functioning despite a surge of patients.

Since December 2003, 15 nations have reported 407 human bird flu cases (38 from China) including 254 deaths. Scientists tracking each case warn against government complacency.

“We lack a complete and comprehensive understanding of the epidemiology of the virus,” said Vincent Martin, a senior technical advisor with the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, China. “We really shouldn’t be complacent. If the worst-case scenario happened, it would be scary. Governments have to really commit to control the disease.”

China, with the world’s largest poultry population spread among village backyard birds, takes millions of surveillance samples every year, but Martin said there remain huge challenges to detect a virus that can hide in wetlands or bird markets for weeks.

“Today, it is not a public health problem but a public health threat” said Troedsson. “We know there will be a pandemic but we don’t know when or which strain. We don’t know if it will be mild or severe.” An outbreak in a village could be confined, he said.

“But if it happened in Beijing…”

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