CAIRO: While most countries are planning for a flu pandemic, many plans have not been tested and may well fail once the next influenza pandemic starts, warned the United Nations and the World Bank in a recent report.
While international efforts have pushed back the spread of bird flu this year, the threat of a global influenza pandemic killing millions remains, and could pause risks to world health, cautioned several international experts in advance of an international convention held in Egypt.
Coming on the heels of a World Bank study suggesting that the economic cost of a pandemic could top a staggering $3 trillion, this continuing lack of preparedness remains a cause of concern, noted the report, issued before the bird flu conference due to be attended by ministers from some 60 countries in Sharm El Sheikh, starting Saturday.
The report – fourth in a series since a bird flu scare swept the globe three years ago -followed a new World Bank estimate that a severe flu pandemic could cost $3 trillion and result in a nearly 5 percent drop in world gross domestic product.
The UN said that even a mild flu pandemic might kill 1.4 million people worldwide, while the death toll from a severe global outbreak could reach 70 million.
Ambassador John Lange, special representative on avian and pandemic influenza at the US Department of State, told Voice of America ahead of the conference that avian influenza is most prevalent in Egypt, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Indonesia, and other countries in Southeast Asia. “Several recent outbreaks have occurred in these countries, reminding leaders of the gravity of the problem.
Bird flu first appeared in Egypt in February 2006. Since then, 50 people have been infected with the virus known as H5N1, with 22 fatalities. The country is the worst hit outside Asia by avian flu.
“Mortality rate in Egypt stands at 44 percent, which is much lower than world average at 63.3 percent, said Abdel Rahman Shahin, spokesperson to the Ministry of Health. “But the huge loss is in animal wealth.
He explained that outbreak of the virus took a huge toll on Egypt’s poultry industry, with losses estimated at LE 2 billion.
According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released in July, Egypt has informed that avian influenza is endemic throughout the country s poultry. Egyptian authorities said that 1,086 outbreaks caused by the H5N1 virus had been reported since February 2006, for the most part in the Nile Delta region. More than one million birds are said to have died from the virus and almost nine million culled.
Shahin made his remarks ahead of the Sixth International Ministerial Conference on Avian and Pandemic Influenza scheduled for Saturday to Sunday.
The parley is to review global progress and plan future efforts for pandemic preparedness and bird flu control.
Ministers and representatives from 116 countries – including 50 health and agriculture ministers – will attend the conclave in Sharm El Sheikh that is organized in collaboration with the European Union and a number of international organizations.
The conference in Sharm El Sheikh will provide the opportunity to talk about what Africa needs in financial terms to continue the fight against bird flu, as well as the early diagnosis and prevention of the virus, Egypt’s Health Minister Hatem El Gabaly said in a press statement.
According to the World Health Organization, avian influenza has so far killed 245 people out of a total 387 confirmed cases worldwide. The highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu virus is endemic in poultry in parts of Asia and Africa – namely in Indonesia and Egypt – but experts fear it will mutate into a form that is easily passed from human to human, sparking a pandemic similar to three others in the past century.
No countries reported new infections of their poultry by the H5N1 bird flu virus in the first nine months of 2008, as compared with four in the same period last year, the UN report said.
The study also pointed out that only 20 countries which have previously reported infections experienced outbreaks between January and September 2008, down from 25 in the same period last year.
The pace of sporadic human infections and deaths from H5N1 has slowed since last year, with 28 confirmed deaths in 2008 compared to 59 in 2007, but the threat of an influenza pandemic remains, the report read.
Ambassador Lange placed the threat of avian and pandemic influenza within the larger context of global health issues competing for limited resources. He acknowledged that compared to diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, avian influenza today remains a more distant threat.
However, he warned that if the avian virus mutates, the ensuing pandemic could be global and devastating, spreading rapidly and affecting millions. According to Lange, it would be the event of our lifetime.