WHO Warns of Bird Flu Pandemic in Humans

The avian influenza strain that has plagued Cambodia and the rest of Asia this year could soon explode into a mass outbreak, killing up to 7 million people globally, World Health Organization officials said late last week.

Though no human cases have been confirmed in Cambodia, health officials here said Sunday that the prospective coupling of a dead­ly epidemic with an overburdened national health care system was cause for alarm.

“We are concerned about it,” said Health Minister Nuth Sok­hom, who with his Thai counterpart co-chaired a WHO-organized meeting in Bangkok last week. “We are lucky right now, because [there are] no human cases.”

At the meeting, which ended Fri­­day and was attended by health of­­fi­cials from 13 Asian countries, WHO Western Pacific Regional Dir­­ector Dr Shigeru Omi said a bird flu pandemic in humans was “highly likely,” and the world is “over­due” for a global influenza pan­­demic, according to a WHO state­ment.

Were the H5N1 virus—currently only transmissible from animals to humans—to mutate so that it could be passed between people, it could kill 2 million to 7 million people and sicken billions, the statement said.

“I believe we are closer now to a pandemic than at any time in recent years,” Omi said, according to The Associated Press.

Local WHO officials and the Health Ministry will review the country’s emergency response plan early next month, said Megge Miller, an epidemiologist with the WHO.

Cambodia amassed protective equip­ment for health care workers during the 2002 outbreak of se­vere acute respiratory syndrome that was never used, as no SARS cas­es were reported here.

“We have enough in stock at the moment to cover us, at least for the initial part of the [potential] outbreak,” Miller said.

Like SARS, human bird flu, which has killed 32 in Vietnam and Thailand, begins with vague symp­­toms, such as fever, fatigue and headaches. However, avian in­flu­enza would have a larger reach into the general population than SARS did, doctors said.

“It will be a real different problem,” said Dr Jean-Baptiste Du­fourcq of Calmette Hospital. “If we had a bird flu human epidemic, we would not have 100 pa­t­ients, but thousands and thousands.”

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