| A Filipino child looks at a rooster in Manila. (AFP)
United Nations, Sept. 30 (Reuters): A global flu pandemic could kill as many as 150 million people if the world fails to prepare for an expected mutation of the bird flu virus enabling it to spread from human to human, the UN said yesterday.
Dr David Nabarro of the Geneva-based World Health Organisation (WHO) said UN secretary-general Kofi Annan has asked him to head up a worldwide drive to contain the current bird flu pandemic and prepare for its possible jump to humans.
If the virus spreads among humans, the quality of the world response will determine whether it ends up killing 5 million or as many as 150 million, Nabarro said.
However, the WHO said today 2-7.4 million deaths was a reasonable working forecast for a global influenza pandemic ' distancing itself from the UN figure of up to 150 million.
The last flu pandemic, which broke out in 1918 at the end of World War I, killed more than 40 million people and drove home the vulnerability of a world where borders had less and less meaning, he said.
It seems very likely the H5N1 bird flu virus will soon change into a variant able to be transmitted among humans and it would be a big mistake to ignore that danger, he warned. “I am almost certain there will be another pandemic soon,” Nabarro said.
Some governments and international organisations have already started joining forces to begin preparations.
President George W. Bush unveiled a plan at the UN this month under which global resources and expertise would be pooled to fight bird flu, and Washington is hosting an October 7-8 planning meeting.
Canada is hosting an October 25-26 meeting of high-level officials in Ottawa, and the WHO has called a November 7-8 meeting in Geneva to coordinate needed funding.
So far, the H5N1 virus has mainly infected humans who were in close contact with infected birds and has killed 66 people in four Asian nations since late 2003.
Millions of birds have been destroyed, causing estimated losses of $10 billion to $15 billion to the poultry industry, with the heaviest losses in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. The virus has also been found in birds in Russia and Europe.
But once humans have caught it, the virus has shown it has the power to kill one out of every two people it infects.
Asia and West Asia are particular concerns as the bird flu is now concentrated in Asia and could be carried to the West Asia by migratory flocks. Nabarro said. But an outbreak in an impoverished and conflict-ridden part of Africa such as Sudan could lead to “a nightmare scenario,” he said.
Until now, the effort to contain the spread of the virus among birds has been led by the World Organisation for Animal Health, the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation and the WHO.