WHO warns army may be needed to fight bird flu

By David Pilling in Tokyo
Published: January 13 2006 02:00

The World Health Organisation yesterday predicted authorities might need to use the army and police to quarantine about 120,000 people to contain aninitial pandemic flu outbreak of just 19 cases.

Hitoshi Oshitani, a consultant to WHO, said his estimates highlighted the difficulty of formulating a rapid response toan initial outbreak of mutated bird flu transmitted between humans.

Not only would such aggressive quarantining raise legal and human rights concerns, he said, but knowledge about how to use antiviral drugs as a preventative measure was limited.

Mr Oshitani, who presented his simulation at an international conference in Tokyo, said the first requirement was rapid detection.

"Timeliness is key. If we do things the way we do right now, it will probably be too late," he said, adding that two weeks after an outbreak was probably the absolute limit.

Experts said that preventing an outbreak from spreading rapidly would be difficult even if there was timely confirmation. Kenji Fukuda, a researcher at WHO's global influenza programme, said: "Right now we do not know the optimum dosage or length of treatment for prophylactic treatment."

Officials said Roche, the Swiss pharmaceuticals company that manufactures Tamiflu, was only now designing protocols to test effective use of the antiviral as a preventative medicine. Still experts said containment was the best hope of preventing a mutated virus from spreading.

*The H5N1 avian flu virus that killed three people in Turkey has made a small mutation that may adapt it more closely to infecting people but it is still a long way from "going human" and starting a pandemic, according to a largely reassuring genetic analysis released last night by the World Health Organisation and UK Medical Research Council, adds Clive Cookson.

The WHO's international flu centre in London said the mutation was in the gene for haemagglutinin, a protein used by flu virus to attach itself to host cells.

A similar mutation has been found previously in viruses taken from human victims of H5N1 in Vietnam and Hong Kong.