- A global taskforce should be urgently formed to tackle
a potential influenza pandemic that could affect 20% of the world's population,
trigger economic disaster and kill millions, experts warned today.
- A report in scientific journal Nature gives a fearful
assessment of the huge impact a pandemic could have on the world, with
an estimate that more than seven million people could die in the first
- A pandemic would change the world "overnight"
and could be worse than previous outbreaks because of the greater interlinked
nature of modern life, experts told Nature.
- Fears of a pandemic have increased because of the outbreak
of the current H5N1 bird flu strain in south-east Asia, which has caused
51 confirmed human deaths.
- At present, there is no evidence that the H5N1 strain
can be transmitted from one person to another, but it may only be a matter
of time before the virus mutates into a form that can easily pass between
people. If that were to happen it would spread rapidly around the world
with devastating consequences. The fatality rate of humans infected by
the virus is as high as 60%.
- Experts warned in Nature that the world was now far more
vulnerable to the effects of a pandemic than it was in 1918, when a deadly
strain of influenza killed between 20 and 40 million people. An 2002 outbreak
of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), an atypical form of pneumonia
killed more than 700 people and illustrated how disease can now spread
quickly to other countries, carried by international travellers.
- An optimistic estimate suggests that the next influenza
pandemic could cause 20% of the world's population to fall ill and within
a few months, almost 30 million people would need to be hospitalised, a
quarter of whom would die.
- Four Dutch experts, led by Dr Albert Osterhaus from the
Erasmus medical centre in Rotterdam, said in Nature that there was an urgent
need for the creation of a global task force to control a future pandemic.
- They said the task force should consist of leading specialists
in the fields of human and animal medicine, virology, epidemiology, pathology,
ecology and agriculture. It should also include experts in translating
science into policy. Management teams should be available to target specific
flu outbreaks occurring anywhere in the world.
- "Given the large geographical area in which the
H5N1 virus has become endemic, and the greater potential for rapid virus
spread, an efficient, effective, outbreak management team strategy, with
centralised guidance, is urgently needed," they said.
- Early detection and rapid response to bird flu at a global
level would greatly reduce the cost of dealing with a full-blown outbreak,
- The agricultural costs alone for the H5N1 outbreaks in
Thailand and Vietnam in 2003 have been estimated at £481.5m and £65.6m
respectively. An outbreak of a different bird flu strain in the Netherlands
in 2003 cost £190m. In contrast, setting up and operating a global
flu pandemic task force would cost less than £820,000 a year.
- Professor Michael Osterholm, from the centre for infectious
disease research and policy at the University of Minnesota, agreed that
international cooperation was vital to minimise the impact of a pandemic
- He said there was a "critical need" for medical
and non-medical planning, involving both the public and private sectors,
at a level beyond anything considered so far.
- "National, regional or local plans based on general
statements of intent or action will be meaningless in the face of a pandemic,"
the professor said. He said a global effort was needed to develop a new
type of vaccine that can be manufactured quickly and which targets multiple
- "Unfortunately, most industrial countries are looking
at the vaccine issue through myopic lenses," he said, adding that
time was running out to prepare for an outbreak.
- "There will be an immediate response from leaders
to stop the virus entering their countries by greatly reducing and even
ending foreign travel and trade, as was seen in parts of Asia in response
to the ... Sars epidemic.
- "These efforts are doomed to fail given the infectiousness
of the virus and the volume of illegal crossings that occur at most borders.
But government officials will feel compelled to do something to demonstrate
leadership. Individual communities will also want to bar 'outsiders'. Global,
national and regional economies will come to an abrupt halt."
- The Asian H5N1 virus that first surfaced in poultry in
Hong Kong and China eight years ago has killed 37 people in Vietnam, 12
in Thailand and four in Cambodia. Fears were raised in China this week
after it was confirmed 178 migratory geese found dead in a nature reserve
in Qinghai province had died of the H5N1 virus, but a report today in a
government newspaper claimed the deaths were an isolated case.
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