Seoul (UPI) Oct 13, 2005
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Thursday that a new strain of the bird flu virus may turn into a global pandemic and jump to millions of people.
In a press conference in Seoul, WHO director Lee Jong-wook called for global cooperation to curb the spread of the deadly disease, stressing the world had no time to waste to stop the epidemic.
"We are concerned that the bird flu will develop into a new strain of influenza," said Lee, returning from an inspection tour of Southeast Asia.
"We know it is coming and the question is when," he said, reminding that since its first reported outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997, it has affected South Korea, Japan, Rumania and Turkey and is being found in Russia and Turkey.
"The bird flu virus now has the potential to bring a degree of harm so serious that it cannot even be compared with the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak," he said.
The SARS virus has killed 700 people and cost $30 billion in economic damage worldwide since it broke out in 2003. "Even from a conservative estimate, the number of people with bird flu will be at least in the millions," he said.
Lee also warned bird flu may mutate into a dangerous human pandemic strain and move towards a form that could be passed between humans. "An avian flu pandemic would have enormous economic and social repercussions across the world. A contingency plan is urgent," he said.
The WHO and the United Nations have warned that between 100 million and 150 million people would be killed worldwide if the H5N1 avian flu that has menaced Asia in the past two years turned into a global pandemic.
The H5N1 bird flu strain does not easily infect humans, but 117 people, mostly poultry workers, have caught it and 60 of them have died since 2003, mostly through direct contact with sick poultry. The WHO fears the H5N1 virus may mutate, acquiring genes from the human influenza virus that would make it highly infectious as well as lethal.
The WHO chief called for an all-out global effort to combat the deadly animal disease. "All countries have to be well-guarded, because even if the human variant breaks out in one area, it has the propensity to spread rapidly, so there is danger everywhere," he said.
Lee also warned that a bird flu outbreak in South Korea alone could affect millions of people. South Korea was the first Asian country to report a bird flu outbreak in December 2003. In 2004 the disease swept much of Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam, China and Indonesia.
No human cases have been reported in South Korea so far, but 5.3 million poultry were infected and slaughtered between December 2003 and March 2004, playing major havoc on farms and chicken stores with an estimated economic loss of $1 trillion won. But no further cases have been reported since.
South Korea will issue a nationwide bird flu alert on Friday as cases of the virulent disease have started to spread throughout northern Asia. Concerns are running high as migratory birds, including geese and wild ducks, often use the Korean peninsula as a winter home or a transit point to fly south from November through January.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, the warning will require the nation's 150,000 duck and chicken farms to keep poultry indoors so they do not come into contact with infected migratory birds.
South Korean health authorities have warned that a bird flu outbreak could infect 10 million people, of whom 30,000 could die in a very short period of time.
The country will also designate a prevention period from November to next February to beef up vigilance and close surveillance at avian sanctuaries and areas near the border with North Korea. Many migratory birds fly South Korea in winter from North Korea, Russia and Mongolia.
North Korea was also hit by bird flue in February and March this year. The North said it eliminated the animal disease after culling 218,000 chickens with outside assistance. The communist state has staged a nationwide campaign since 2001 to build poultry farms as part of efforts to ease the country's chronic food shortages.
Seoul's Foreign Ministry officials said they would include the issue of avian flu in the agenda of the upcoming summit of 21 Asian and Pacific countries. South Korea will host in November a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Busan, the country's second largest city.
"APEC member countries will have in-depth discussions on the avian flu issue during the APEC summit and conferences," Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said in a meeting with the WHO chief.
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