WHO says bird flu likely source of next pandemic


WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION: The bird flu virus that rampaged across much of Asia this year is the most likely cause of the next human flu pandemic, which could hit up to 30 per cent of the world's people, a top international expert said yesterday.

There was no question about whether another influenza pandemic would sweep through the world's more than six billion people, only a question of when, Dr Klaus Stohr told a news conference.

"There are estimates that would put the number of deaths in the range between two and seven million and the number of people affected will go beyond the billions as 25 to 30 per cent will fall ill," he said.

"This virus is certainly the most likely one which will cause the next pandemic," Dr Stohr said, referring to the H5N1 avian flu virus that has forced Asian governments to kill tens of millions of poultry in a vain attempt to wipe it out.

"We don't know if the next pandemic will happen in the next week or in the next years," said Dr Stohr, who coordinates the World Health Organisation's global influenza programme.

Two US firms were working on producing a vaccine against the H5N1 virus, but one would not be available until March at the earliest, he said. "If I were to make a suggestion as to where the virus will come from, it would be from the countries that are most affected by the disease in poultry."

The worst-hit countries have been Thailand, where the virus has killed at least 12 people, Vietnam, where 20 have died, and China, source of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) two years ago.

Experts fear a repetition of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, which is thought to have killed more than 20 million people. They fear the H5N1 virus, which has infected humans in close touch with infected birds but managed to move from person to person only after prolonged contact, could mutate into a form that would sweep through populations with no immunity.