UN expert warns flu pandemic could kill millions

New York: More than 150 million people worldwide could be killed by a flu pandemic, warns the United Nations.

Dr David Nabarro, a UN public health expert said the outbreak would be a mutation of the bird flu which has hit Asia.

In 1968 a flu pandemic claimed up to four million lives worldwide. But the new pandemic which could hit at any time could prove fatal to anywhere between five million or 150 million people worldwide.

Dr Nabarro, the new UN co-ordinator for avian and human influenza, called on governments to take immediate steps to address the threat.

‘We expect the next influenza pandemic to come at any time now, and it’s likely to be caused by a mutant of the virus that is currently causing bird flu in Asia,’ he told a news conference to mark his appointment.

‘The avian flu epidemic has to be controlled if we are to prevent a human influenza pandemic.’

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has been spreading through poultry populations in Asia since 2003. So far tens of millions of birds have died and it has killed at least 65 people, mostly poultry workers. The virus does not pass easily from person to person but the fear is that it could mutate to create a virulent new strain in humans.

A previous influenza pandemic in 1918 killed more than 40million people. Subsequent outbreaks in 1957 and 1968 originated from avian flu viruses combined with human viruses.

The first case of what was known as Hong Kong flu was confirmed in Britain in January 1969, by which time doctors and chemists said they no longer had any vaccine to prevent it.

Dr Nabarro said the UN was coordinating a response to the new threat after Asian leaders sought help from Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the recent UN summit.

‘I believe the work we’re doing over the next few months on prevention and preparedness will make the difference between, for example, whether the next pandemic leads us in the direction of 150million or in the direction of 5million,’ he said.

Bird flu has not yet reached Europe but it was found in birds in Russia last month.
Experts fear that, should it mutate, international travel will allow it to sweep rapidly around the globe. The drug Tamiflu has proved effective in treating bird flu but supplies are low in many countries.

Britain’s top flu expert, Professor John Oxford of Queen Mary’s School of Medicine, said that washing hands remains one of the best defences against flu.