Top expert says bird flu risk overestimated

According to a top animal health expert the H5N1 bird flu virus has now stabilised but the risk that it could mutate into a new dangerous form remains.

The highly pathogenic virus has to date infected more than 340 people and killed 212 along with millions of birds, since it re-emerged in Asia in 2003.

At present the virus does not easily spread between people and most victims have been infected through close contact with sick poultry.

The virus has now spread through Asia, Africa and Europe, affecting both poultry and wild birds.

Bernard Vallat, President of the world animal health body OIE says bird flu cases are still regularly reported to the OIE and will always remain a risk, be it H5N1 or another.

But Vallat also says the bird flu crisis had been "badly handled" and the risk overestimated and two years were lost in Vietnam when it could have been stopped.

Vallat says the H5N1 virus has proved extremely stable, despite concerns that it could mutate into a form that could spread easily among humans.

Vallat believes the widespread panic that followed the outbreak drew the attention of a larger number of governments to the risks of a pandemic and as a result countries were far better prepared.

He says Indonesia, Egypt and Nigeria, where the disease is endemic, remain the biggest concern because they could act as reservoirs for the virus; he says the risks from H5N1 would be "greatly diminished" if the virus were eradicated in these countries.

He says vaccination campaigns were needed in countries where H5N1 has become endemic.

Other diseases which are also being monitored by the OIE, include West Nile virus which is thought to have entered the United States through a parrot and was then spread by mosquitoes to the rest of the country, killing in turn hundreds of people.

Rift Valley fever is also spreading across Africa, and has a high death rate and could adapt to southern Mediterranean countries.

Vallat says diseases can now spread faster across the world than before and he is calling for stronger surveillance, larger government budgets to ensure countries had early detection systems and the encouraging of rapid notification.

Meanwhile British officials have confirmed that bird flu was found in three wild mute swans found dead in Dorset, southern England.

The World Organization for Animal Health is a Paris-based inter-governmental organization responsible for improving animal health worldwide.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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