New flu pandemic could kill 150 million

Associated Press


A top U.N. public health official warned Thursday that a new influenza pandemic could come anytime and claim millions of lives unless officials to take action now to control an epidemic in Asia.

Dr. David Nabarro of the World Health Organization called on governments to take immediate steps to address the threat at a news conference following his appointment as the new U.N. coordinator to lead a global drive to counter a human flu pandemic.

"We expect the next influenza pandemic to come at any time now, and it's likely to be caused by a mutant of the virus that is currently causing bird flu in Asia," he said.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has swept through poultry populations in Asia since 2003, infecting humans and killing at least 65 people, mostly poultry workers, and resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of birds. The virus does not pass from person to person easily, but experts believe this could change if the virus mutates.

Nabarro said with the almost certainty of another influenza pandemic soon, and with experts saying there is a high likelihood of the H5N1 virus mutating, it would be "extremely wrong" to ignore the serious possibility of a global outbreak.

"The avian flu epidemic has to be controlled if we are to prevent a human influenza pandemic," Nabarro said.

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed more than 40 million people, and there were subsequent pandemics in 1957 and 1968 which had lower death rates but caused great disruption, he said.

In a new pandemic, Nabarro said, "the range of deaths could be anything between 5 and 150 million."

"The work we're doing over the next few months on prevention and preparedness will make the difference between, for example, whether the next pandemic leads us in the direction of 150 (million) or in the direction of 5 (million)," he said.

He said Asian leaders met with Secretary-General Kofi Annan during the recent U.N. summit and asked for U.N. assistance in coordinating the response to the bird flu epidemic.

Annan asked Nabarro to take a leave from his current post as WHO's executive director for sustainable development and health environments to become the U.N. system's coordinator for avian and human influenza.

Nabarro said he plans to travel to Washington on Friday to work with the U.S. State Department on preparations for the first meeting of the International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza on Oct. 7. The U.S. initiative, announced by President Bush at the U.N. summit on Sept. 14, is designed to increase global readiness to deal with a human flu pandemic and will "garner political will," he said.

AP Wire | 09/30/2005 | New flu pandemic could kill 150 million