Health Officials: Avian Flu Closer to Becoming Pandemic

Reuters: Indonesia confirmed its fourth human death from avian influenza on Friday [Sept. 16, 2005] amid growing global alarm that the virus would mutate and become a pandemic. Speaking in New York on Thursday [Sept. 15, 2005], World Health Organization Chief Lee Jong-wook said the virus was moving toward becoming transmissible by humans and that the international community had no time to waste to prevent a pandemic.

The H5N1 [avian influenza virus] has killed 64 people in four Asian countries since late 2003 and also spread to Russia. A senior Indonesian health official said tests had shown [that avian influenza virus infection was responsible for the death of] a woman who died last week in a Jakarta hospital after she was admitted suffering from pneumonia and flu-like respiratory problems.

The woman, 37, died last Saturday [Sept. 10, 2005]. She lived in south Jakarta near a chicken farm, although health officials have not said how she may have contracted the infection.

“Our task now as the government is to make sure the public do not panic. Just like when we get a bomb threat, we need to avoid panic. Up until now, there is no proof that there is human-to-human transfer,” Kandun said.

But in a stark warning, WHO Chief Lee, a South Korean doctor, said it was only a matter of time before the virus mutated. “Human influenza is coming, we know that, and no government, no leaders can afford to be caught off-guard,” Lee told a news conference. “We must pounce on human pandemic outbreaks with all medicines at our disposal and at the earliest possible moment.”

Most of the people killed in Asia since 2003 [contracted] the virus from infected birds. Health experts say the greatest worry is that the highly pathogenic strain of the [virus] known as the H5N1 avian influenza A virus could mutate and become transmissible between people. Lee said H5N1 “will acquire this capability — it’s just an issue of timing.”

Countries distant from heavily hit Southeast Asian states would not be safe, because the disease [i.e. the virus] was spreading through migratory wildfowl, Lee added. Besides Indonesia, avian influenza has killed 44 people in Viet Nam,
12 people in Thailand and 4 in Cambodia. U.S. President George W. Bush unveiled a plan at the United Nations on Wednesday under which countries
and international agencies would pool resources and expertise to fight avian influenza.

U.N. health authorities have said more cases could be expected in Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation. The government has launched a vaccination drive for poultry, but carried out only limited culling because it does not have enough money to compensate farmers, and more than half of all chickens in Indonesia are kept in backyards.

The WHO says the preferable approach is mass culling. The virus has spread to 22 provinces out of 33 in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago, killing more than 9.5 million poultry since late 2003.

In July 2005, Indonesia confirmed its first human casualties of H5N1 avian influenza — a father and his two young daughters in Tangerang on the outskirts of Jakarta. But authorities could not pinpoint the source that infected the family.


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