World May Have Averted Bird Flu Pandemic: Expert

SYDNEY ~ The world may have already averted a bird flu pandemic by widespread chicken culls and the isolation of infected humans, Australia’s chief medical officer said in a report released this week.

But if a new flu virus did begin spreading rapidly among humans all the world’s preparations might be shown to be insufficient, John Horvath wrote in the Medical Journal of Australia.

“It may be that the world has already averted an influenza pandemic by actions it has taken in response to H5N1, such as extensive culling of poultry and isolation of infected humans,” he said.

“Yet all preparations may seem insufficient if the world comes face to face with a rapidly spreading novel virus like the one that emerged in 1918.”

Scientists fear the H5N1 virus, which has spread from poultry to humans and killed more than 150 people worldwide, mainly in Asia, could mutate to become easily transmissible among people.

That could lead to a global flu pandemic that could kill more than the tens of millions killed by the “Spanish Flu” in 1918.

Horvath noted that the changes in the world since previous pandemics, such as faster and cheaper international travel and more densely populated countries, would make it easier for disease to spread.

Leading immunologist Peter Doherty said in the same government-sponsored report that while some kind of pandemic outbreak was certain in the future, researchers were divided over whether it would be caused by the H5N1 virus.

“There’s the quandary: the potential threat has horrific proportions but it is not clear whether anything will actually happen,” he wrote.

The top UN coordinator on avian influenza, David Nabarro, said earlier this month the H5N1 virus was likely to remain a significant global threat for the next decade.

“The risk of a mutation to cause pandemic is still very much there,” he said. “As long as the virus is present in birds, there will also be a threat of sporadic human infection, and a possibility of a mutation, which would cause, at the end of the day, a pandemic.”

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