Bird-flu: a pandemic just waiting to happen?

In the last couple of weeks, warnings regarding the threat of a new bird-flu pandemic have flooded out of organizations like the WHO, APAC and the health ministries of various regional governments. Since the SARS outbreak, most people have become immune to such health warnings. After all, it’s impractical to constantly live in fear. However, should we now be taking note of the latest global wake-up call? The warnings have also included critical assessments that no country is adequately prepared for any large outbreak.

The U.N. bird-flu coordinator recently warned that the risk of a global pandemic is now at its highest since the 1968 outbreak and that a new pandemic could kill between 5 and 150 million people. However, the WHO then qualified that statement by saying that 7.4. million (about the population of Hong Kong) was a “more reasonable figure”. Certainly the odds are not in our favour, the University of Otago’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, recently said that experts all believe a flu pandemic is inevitable at some point as past records show that there are between 3 and 4 such catastrophes every century.

Since 2003, bird flu has killed more than 60 people in Southeast Asia, mainly Vietnam. However, there have also been bird flu outbreaks in Turkey, Romania, Russia and Kazakhstan – raising fears that the virus has already spread beyond Asia.

The fear of an outbreak is based around the fact that poultry is already being used as a reservoir for H5N1 and another strain of the virus, that is both highly infectious and deadly to humans, will eventually mutate. Initial reports by the WHO show that this has already happened in Indonesia, i.e. the virus mutated, was passed on to humans and affected chickens but did not kill them. However, these reports remain unconfirmed.

Most microbiologists agree that the bird flu virus could now be at a crucial stage and it’s just a matter of time before a mutated form of the virus gets lucky and is able to spread to humans. In addition, if the virus is new, which it probably will be, then there will not be any available cures or remedies and will be able to spread through human populations unmolested. This is the worst-case scenario for health experts and the root of all “ecological terrorist” and “the world will collapse” theories.

The last global pandemic was the H1N1 Spanish Flu virus in 1918-19. This was a strain of bird flu that mutated into a form of the virus that was able to spread to humans. It was so virulent that it often targeted the young and healthy, killing people within days as their ravaged lungs filled with blood. Spanish Flu killed 50 million people at a time when international travel was nowhere near as prevalent as it is today.

UPDATE: Burma Watch asks why bird-flu, according to the ruling military junta, appears to have completely skipped Burma.

The Discussion: 9 Comments

The key question to ask here is why we are not hearing anything from China on bird flu. While the infection has now spread to Romania, China is blithely denying that anything is happening on its own patch. It simply defies belief that countries such as Vietnam can be having outbreaks but China is not. The fact that all data on the potential pandemics is regarded as a “state secret” in China is criminally irresponsible. On my blog I pointed out that the person with potentially 150 million deaths on his hands is Xia Yong (夏勇), director of China’s National Administration for Protection of State Secrets (国家保密局). Along with health minister Gao Qiang and the minister for agriculture, Du Qinglin, Xia Yong is suppressing information that could potentially help catch any such pandemic at an early stage.

October 11, 2005 @ 12:33 am | Comment

And also bird-flu is just one of many of China’s health outbreaks. The last one was the pig virus.

Does anybody here believe that the Chinese government would be immediately open and honest about any future bird-flu outbreak? No way.

The crucial element of a potential outbreak is acknowledging the virus QUICKLY and taking steps to isolate it as fast as possible to sto pit from spreading.

China’s governemnt have possibly the worst record possible in this. China is probalby the most dangerous place in Asia to be during or at the start of any outbreak. It’s also the country that is most likely to cause a new virus as many farmers have close and daily contact with animals.

October 11, 2005 @ 1:57 am | Comment

Though the policy of the Chinese government is highly dangerous, one should not forget that other governments had there problems with a transperant policy either. Just remember how long it took the British and other European governments to aknowledge that BSE could be dangerous to humans, because of the economic implications.
Had a post on my blog on H5N1 some time ago:

October 11, 2005 @ 2:23 am | Comment

Yes, I can’t argue with that. I also think that China’s bottom-up system of official reporting, with significant local power in the regions, certainly does nothing to help with efficient and timely reporting of local outbreaks.

As shulan says, other countries, particularly Thailand – where I was at the time – also went to great and elaborate lengths to cover up bird-flu for fear of upsetting its massive chicken rearing industry. As I remember, Thailand got off very lightly indeed with this potentially disasterous cover up.

Unfortunately, China has a poor reputation as far as transparency and cooperation with international bodies goes. It’s well-earned but not exclusive to China.

You’re right about the British Govt handling the BSE scandal very badly. That was shameful.

October 11, 2005 @ 2:34 am | Comment

I am thinking about putting together a post on what would probably happen if China had an outbreak. I’m not so sure that they would be hush hush about it. Anyone have any ideas? Where would it probably hit first? The bird markets just across from HK? Are the past experiences with SARS a reasonable guage for what they would do now with Avian flu?

October 11, 2005 @ 3:05 am | Comment

If the UN can send in weapons inspectors to look for weapons that weren’t there, surely they can send in some avian flu inspectors to look for something that we know for sure is there – and which could kill a lot more than Saddam’s non-existent arsenal.

October 11, 2005 @ 4:38 am | Comment

…or according to the post…if it isn’t there now then it will be at some point. China has not radically changed its farming methods nor has suddenly beome transparent.

A ticking time bomb.

October 11, 2005 @ 4:42 am | Comment

When thinking about flus gone by, you should consider the 1976 case in addition to the 1918 one. In 1976 advisors told the American leaders that flus are strongest when a new strain forms. “We have never seen a new flu strain that didn’t become an epidemic,” they reported. The outbreak never came and it created a distrust of disease prediction.
Does that mean that it is okay for China to cover up information? No. Does that mean we shouldn’t worry? No.

October 11, 2005 @ 5:28 am | Comment

does this mean were all gonna die?

November 3, 2005 @ 5:02 pm | Comment

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