HO CHI MINH CITY: The world is overdue for an influenza pandemic and must act swiftly if it is to prevent one being triggered by the bird flu now endemic in parts of Asia where it has killed 46 people, UN officials said yesterday.
The world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic, Shigeru Omi, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Asia, said at a bird flu conference in Vietnam, the country hardest hit by the H5N1 virus.
The world usually had a pandemic every 20 or 30 years, but it has been 40 since the last one, he said.
The versatile and very resilient bird flu virus that swept through large parts of Asia at the end of 2003 would be the source of the next one without concerted action, he said.
Joseph Domenech of the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) called specifically on rich, developed countries to do more.
If they don't do more, sooner or later the problem could appear in their place, he told the conference in this capital, home to 10 million people and close to the Mekong Delta where Vietnam's latest outbreaks began in December.
The ball is on their side, he said.
The latest outbreak in Vietnam has killed 13 people. All, like earlier victims, appear to have contracted it from direct contact with sick birds.
But what these experts fear is that the H5N1 virus could get into a human or animal with a human flu virus and mutate into a strain that could sweep through a world population with no immunity and kill millions.
The virus, which has already turned up in cats and now in flies, would take many years to eradicate and action was needed now, Domenech said.
The bird flu virus has already brought high costs to the worst-hit countries such as Vietnam and Thailand, where most people live in the countryside and most keep chickens, which are often free to wander.
The conference here is reviewing how Asian governments have fared against the stubborn virus and plotting a battle plan for the future.
Nearly 140 million birds have been slaughtered or died in the Asian epidemic so far, and the financial cost is already up to US$10bil (RM38bil), according to some estimates.
But one year on, many countries lack diagnostic tools and surveillance systems to detect and respond quickly to outbreaks.
Wild birds, especially ducks, are natural hosts of the virus and they are often blamed for its spread.
But senior FAO official Samuel Jutzi said the evidence suggested that trade in live poultry, the mixing of species on farms and at bird markets, and poor farming practices contribute much more to disease spread than wild bird movements.
Public awareness campaigns about the health risks of bird flu are running in several affected countries. Reuters