A three-day council of war on avian influenza opened in Geneva Monday to warnings that a flu pandemic was inevitable, could kill millions and inflict serious economic damage if the world failed to defend itself.
The avian flu scare has led to mass culling of birds in some places
An influenza pandemic, potentially unleashed by a mutation of the H5N1 bird flu virus, "is only a matter of time," World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Lee Jong-Wook said.
"We don't know when this will happen, but we know it will happen," Lee said. "(...) If we are unprepared, the next pandemic will cause incalculable human misery... no society will be exempt and no economy will be unscathed."
Samuel Jutzi, director of the animal production and health division at the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), said "the window of opportunity" remained open for tackling the threat at its source: on the farm.
"The virus has not yet reassorted or mutated," said Jutzi. "Action is required now. There is no time to lose here."
Highest-level global meet on bird flu
The Geneva confab is the senior-most global meeting of doctors, veterinarians and public-health officials since the avian influenza scare erupted in 2003. It is also the first to gather the World Bank alongside the WHO, the FAO and World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), a Paris-based agency that sets veterinary standards in farm trade.
A South Korean health official sprays disinfectant at a chicken farm, north of Seoul
The conference takes place against a backdrop of growing concern about the failure to stem the H5N1 bird flu virus in Asia, its spread to Europe and the vulnerability of Africa, the world's poorest continent.
"We have experienced a relentless spread of avian flu," Lee said somberly. He added that 63 deaths, out of 124 known cases of human infection, had been reported to the WHO, 150 million fowl had been slaughtered and the economic cost of the virus was more than $10 billion (8.46 billion euros).
The World Bank's leading economist for East Asia and the Pacific, Milan Brahmbhatt, said that a major pandemic could clip between two or three percent off the global economy, inflicting costs of as much as $800 billion after a year.
For rich countries alone, the cost could be 550 billion dollars, the World Bank said separately in a report issued in Geneva.
Fear of virus mutation
At present, H5N1 is transmissible from bird to humans who are closely exposed to virus expelled by sickly fowl in their faeces and nasal secretions.
But it cannot be easily passed from humans to humans. The fear is that the more the virus spreads, the greater chance it has to mutate, picking up genes from ordinary flu that could make it highly contagious from humans to humans.
This feared mutation could occur if H5N1 is transmitted to a human or a pig that already has been infected by the conventional flu virus.
No one would have any immunity against the new pathogen, which means a pandemic could swiftly spread in the modern era of jet travel and the globalized economy.
Looking at preventive measures
The Geneva meeting is looking at national and global preparations for coping with a pandemic.
Drugs and vaccines are being developed to fight bird flu
These include stockpiling drugs and face masks, preparing hospitals for an emergency, setting up emergency transport and food supplies, and advising the public in order to avert a panic.
But a bigger priority is to target the risk of a virus mutation itself, among domestic fowl where H5N1 has holed up. This means beefing up veterinary surveillance, culling infected poultry, protecting fowl with H5N1 vaccine and reporting cases of infection swiftly and accurately.
Another task is to compensate farmers for culls. If too little is offered, farmers may hide an outbreak of disease; if too much is offered, they may be tempted to deliberately infect their birds, said Brahmbhatt.
Helping poorer nations cope
Indonesia's state minister for national development planning, Sri Mulyani Indrawati, acknowledged that her country was wrestling with major problems, and "at sometimes we are quite overstretched."
The country lacks local veterinarians to check on flocks and epidemiologists to monitor and evaluate outbreaks and illegal vaccines are circulating, she said.
Mike Ryan, director of the WHO's epidemic and pandemic alert and response unit, said that fixing basic gaps in veterinary and human wealth would not come cheap.
"We need capital investment. This is going to cost money," Ryan said.
The World Bank said last Friday it would make up to $500 million available to poor countries to help them meet the threat.