Sat, Mar 12, 2005 - Page 2 News List

Bird flu epidemic a matter of time, CDC says

FEAR-MONGERING?After making predictions using computer models, the Center for Disease Control warned that an outbreak of bird flu is not a matter of if but when

By Wang Hsiao-wen  /  STAFF REPORTER

Amid rising fears of a spread of bird flu to humans, the Center for Disease Control yesterday fleshed out plans to battle a potential flu epidemic that could hospitalize as many as 75,000 people, according to some estimates.

Health officials warned that the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu could be unleashed if the virus mutates and is able to spread through human-to-human contact. They also said a mutated virus would be immune to existing treatments.

Health officials made predictions on infection and casualty rates by using a computer simulation program provided by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. They also predicted that if a bird flu epidemic strikes Taiwan, up to 25 percent of the population would be affected.

"We know it is coming, we just don't know when," said the center's director of the immunization program, Yen Jer-je (顏哲傑).

The center estimated that as many as 75,000 people could be hospitalized once the influenza hits Taiwan. In a worst-case scenario, 14,000 patients would die from the flu.

"In the first week of the flu's onset, an estimated 14,000 patients would flood into hospitals. The number of affected people would peak in the fifth week," Yen said at a press conference yesterday.

The center's alarm came as the bird flu threat grows more ominous in neighboring southeast Asian countries.

"Since last year, 42 of the 55 people who contracted bird flu in southeast Asia have died. The mortality rate reached an unnerving high of 76 percent," said the center's deputy director Lin Ting (林頂), citing the latest figures from the WHO.

In the face of a potential flu epidemic, the center mapped out three strategies, including research on vaccines, purchasing of antiviral drugs and stepping up surveillance measures. According to Yen, the center has stockpiled antiviral drugs that could meet the needs of as many as 230,000 people. The center will also consider buying more anti-flu drugs if the disease continues to spread across the region.

The best way to nip any epidemic in the bud would be to develop a safe and effective vaccine, the center said. The center, along with the National Health Institute have worked together on vaccines research, targeting the H5N1 and H9N2 strains.

However, health officials were cautious about whether their research will yield an effective vaccine before an outbreak.

"The US is also doing the vaccine research. But we cannot say for sure that we will have a vaccine before an epidemic strikes," Yen said.

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