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Opinion: The Preventable Catastrophe

Coordinated efforts and an open information policy could prevent the worst in case of a bird flu pandemic -- at least theoretically, says DW's Judith Hartl.

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Global cooperation could limit the horrors to animals

It happened surprisingly quickly, experts say. Very few expected that the virus would race around the globe with such velocity. For a long time, it was far away -- in places, where people live much closer to chickens and geese than in Europe. But now it's arrived in the EU, where this reality has been brutally clear by the many beautiful, gracious swans that have died because of the virus.

The problem is that H5N1 can not only affect poultry, but also become dangerous for humans. Fortunately that doesn't happen very often -- only if there's very close contact between people and animals. Almost 100 people have died in Asia and four succumbed in Turkey. But contact can be avoided and that likelihood to get infected while feeding a sick duck or swan in Europe is negligible.

Bird flu is a plague that only affects animals -- at least so far, and that's the really dangerous thing. H5N1 can mutate in a way that it can move from human to human. This would be a grave problem: The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned about a global pandemic for quite some time. The likelihood of this happening is increasing. Let's not forget that a bird virus already mutated once and moved on to affect humans. Between 1918 and 1920, the extremely aggressive H1N1 virus -- better known as the Spanish influenza -- killed more than 25 million people.

Ope n n ess is the best preve n tio n

Now H5N1 is spreading as fast as the wind. All the preventive measures, controls, mass culling of birds and lockdowns are more or less useful to keep the virus from spreading. But this won't keep it from mutating. The only thing that's uncertain is whether it will become extremely dangerous for humans. Unfortunately, no one can know what will happen -- and that's why we're constantly trying to catch up to the virus and can only react to it.

The WHO has assured that it is ready to react to a pandemic. A vaccine still doesn't exist -- production can only begin once the virus that has caused the pandemic is known. Researchers are ready, preparations have been made, meaning that production could start quickly. A catastrophe could easily be prevented -- at least in theory.

The only problem is that this only works if no suspected cases are hidden, if nothing gets covered up out of fear and embarrassment, if the communication between states, within the population and among authorities and institutions works -- on a global level. The vaccine would also have to be available to everyone -- and not just those again that can afford it.

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