Bird flu pushed back, pandemic threat remains: UN

By Patrick Worsnip

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - International efforts have pushed back the spread of bird flu this year, but the risk of a global influenza pandemic killing millions is as great as ever, the United Nations and World Bank reported on Tuesday.

Most countries now have plans to combat a pandemic, but many of the plans are defective, said the report, issued ahead of a bird flu conference due to be attended by ministers from some 60 countries in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, from October 24-26.

The report, fourth in a series since a bird flu scare swept the globe three years ago, followed a new World Bank estimate that a severe flu pandemic could cost $3 trillion and result in a drop of nearly 5 percent in world gross domestic product.

The highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu virus is endemic in poultry in parts of Asia, but experts fear it will mutate into a form that is easily passed from human to human, sparking a pandemic similar to three others in the past century.

The U.N.-World Bank report said that in the first nine months of this year no countries were newly infected with highly pathogenic bird flu, compared with four in the first half of 2007. Just 20 countries had experienced outbreaks so far this year, compared with 25 last year.

Since late 2003 there have been 387 cases of humans catching the disease from birds, of whom 245 have died in Asia, Africa and Europe. But of these there have been only 36 human cases this year, of which 28 proved fatal.

“This particular virus, H5N1, is a much milder threat now than it was in September 2005,” U.N. influenza coordinator David Nabarro told a news conference.



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