• Governments warned that quick action is needed to avoid avian flu pandemic
• World Health Organisation reveals bird flu has mutated into deadlier forms
• Avian influenza killed 45 people over the course of last year
"The world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic. If the virus becomes highly contagious among humans, the health impact in terms of deaths and sickness will be enormous" - SHIGERU OMI, WHO
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THE world is on the brink of a bird flu pandemic that could claim the lives of millions of people, scientists warned yesterday.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) called an emergency conference of 20 nations to urge wealthy western countries to play a bigger role in halting the spread of avian flu.
"The world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic," Shigeru Omi, of the WHO, said at the conference in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where health authorities are meeting to consider emergency measures to control the virus.
"If the virus becomes highly contagious among humans, the health impact in terms of deaths and sickness will be enormous," Dr Omi warned in the most strongly-worded statement issued so far by the WHO.
The countries afflicted by the latest outbreak of bird flu, are Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. They are expected to outline their technical and financial needs at the conference.
Joseph Domenech, of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, called on rich, developed countries to do more. He said: "If they don’t do more, sooner or later the problem could appear in their place."
The Asian avian flu is part of the H1 family of flu viruses. Dr Julie Gerberding, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said: "Each time we see a new H1 antigen emerge, we experience a pandemic of influenza."
In 1918, H1 appeared and millions died worldwide. In 1957, the Asian flu was an H2 and in 1968, the Hong Kong flu was an H3.
There have been minor cases of the H1 type of avian viruses in other years, but nothing like the H5 now rampaging through the birds of Asia.
Dr Gerberding said: "We are seeing a highly pathogenic strain of influenza virus emerge ... across the entire western component of Asia. You may see the emergence of a new strain to which the human population has no immunity."
She said there was evidence that the virus was changing rapidly, or mutating, and there was a "very high threat" that bird flu would eventually acquire the ability to spread rapidly between people.
Scientists are frustrated because intensive efforts over more than a year to curb its spread through birds - the main source of human exposure - have failed.
Avian flu H5N1 has made 55 people ill, killing 42 of them, since January last year. Since 30 December, there have been 13 cases in Vietnam and one in Cambodia - its first known case. Twelve of the Vietnamese who contracted the flu have died.
The UN has warned that aid shipments after the Indian Ocean tsunamis on Boxing Day could have helped to spread the virus.
The meeting in Ho Chi Minh City comes a year after UN officials called an emergency summit in response to the first wave of avian influenza, which struck eight south-east Asian countries and killed or resulted in the preventive slaughter of more than 100 million birds, causing profound economic harm.
Researchers have since found the virus affects many species, ranging from domestic ducks and wild waterfowl to mice, ferrets and big cats. The virus is so entrenched it probably cannot be eradicated by mass culls. There is no vaccine for the H5N1 virus, but scientists in the United States, Britain and Vietnam are in the process of developing one.
Delegates at this week’s conference are expected to discuss a range of topics, including mass vaccinations, flu research, farm hygiene, animal husbandry practices and how to improve co-ordination between animal health and human health agencies.
CONTROVERSIAL BODY WATCHING WORLD HEALTH
THE World Health Organisation has issued numerous warnings about diseases, as well as trends that could seriously harm public health.
It has even issued guidelines about the health implications of SUVs - commonly known as four-wheel drives - which it worries is set to become one of the world’s most common causes of death and disability.
The WHO was also responsible for issuing a framework on tobacco control which led to companies being compelled to cover 30 per cent of cigarette packing with health warnings.
In 2003, the WHO came under intense criticism for its handling of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, when it refused to lift its health warnings in infected parts of the world despite clear evidence that the infection was under control.
Canada, which was critically affected by SARS, hit out, saying the WHO had imposed travel warnings for tourists for political reasons when the SARS outbreak was coming under control.
Toronto, the city at the heart of the outbreak, had won backing from the US Centres for Disease Control for its handling of SARS.
The WHO also acts to put health warnings in place in humanitarian crises; most recently it warned of the health effects of the civil war in Darfur, Sudan.