A leading virus expert yesterday urged health authorities around the world to stay vigilant even though the recent swine flu pandemic was less deadly than expected, warning that bird flu could spark the next global outbreak.
A WHO official also defended the UN’s health body against accusations that it wasted governments’ money and enriched pharmaceutical companies with its strong warnings during the swine flu outbreak’s early days last year.
WHO declared the swine flu pandemic over last month. The latest death toll is just over 18,600 — far below the millions that were once predicted.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of an influenza conference in Hong Kong, researcher Robert Webster warned against complacency.
“We may think we can relax and influenza is no longer a problem. I want to assure you that that is not the case,” said Webster, chairman of the virology and molecular biology department at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
Webster predicted that the next pandemic could be sparked by a virus that spreads from water fowl to pigs and then onto humans — such as the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has killed 300 people over the past seven years. After several years of decline, the number of bird flu cases in humans increased last year, lifted by an uptick of cases in Egypt, he said.
“H5N1 can kill 61 percent of humans infected, but it doesn’t know how to spread from human to human. But don’t trust it because it could acquire that capacity. So we must stay vigilant,” he said.
Sylvie Briand, head of WHO’s global influenza program, said its surveillance has shown that the bird flu strain isn’t capable now of jumping between humans except in rare cases of close personal contact, but echoing Webster, warned: “These are viruses that are evolving. They are changing all the time.”
Both experts said it was difficult to predict when — or if — bird flu might set off a new pandemic.
“We don’t understand enough about the virus to make predictions,” Webster said.
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