U.N. Official Sees Bird Flu as Threat for Next Decade

By Judy Aita
Washington File Staff Writer

United Nations - Bird flu is likely to remain a health threat to animals, and possibly humans, for the next decade, the U.N. coordinator for avian influenza says.

Dr. David Nabarro said October 23 that the avian influenza virus H5N1 "still is a major animal health issue for most of the world and we think it's going to stay that way for five, perhaps 10 years, to come.”

Health experts predict the virus will be an ongoing threat because of its highly pathogenic nature and its capability to survive in some species of wild birds for long periods without harming those species. These bird varieties then become carriers of the virus, transmitting it to more vulnerable bird populations.

Another factor adding to the health threat is the virus’ ability to spread by a variety of mechanisms - wild bird migration, trade in animals and poor biosecurity practices in agriculture.

Nabarro spoke at a press conference to discuss his first year as coordinator of avian influenza response. Formerly a senior public health expert at the World Health Organization (WHO), Nabarro was appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2005 to ensure that U.N. agencies mount an effective, coordinated response in support of global efforts to control the pandemic of H5N1 among birds and to prevent a human influenza pandemic.

In 2006, more than 30 countries reported outbreaks among wild birds or domestic poultry, Nabarro said.  Although the disease did not spread quite as broadly as expected in Africa, the number of viral outbreaks worldwide was greater than in any previous year.

One of the major goals for African nations is building their capacity to deal adequately with bird flu outbreaks.  Animal health services are understaffed and underbudgeted, he said.

The H5N1 virus also continues to affect people, with 256 known human infections causing 151 deaths, according to WHO.  Hundreds of millions of birds have died or been killed to limit the spread of the virus, a primarily animal disease.  But if the virus mutates into a form that is spread easily among humans, a global pandemic could result.

"The rate of human death is distressingly high with Indonesia increasingly becoming the country which causes all of us, including the Indonesian authorities, very great concern," Nabarro said.

"One absolute requirement" for the international community is "to get prepared for the [human] pandemic," he added.

Ten countries have reported human cases of H5N1. Indonesia has reported more human deaths – 55 – than any other nation.


On October 23, WHO released its Global Pandemic Influenza Action Plan to Increase Vaccine Supply, and the United States announced a $10 million contribution to support flu vaccine development and manufacturing in other countries.  (See related article.)

Dealing with the problem also involves reforming poultry rearing, which includes separating commercial poultry from wild fowl and backyard birds, Nabarro said.  That separation now is being adopted in agricultural practices in more and more countries around the world, especially in Asia where the virus has been more prevalent.

Countries also are gearing up their veterinary services to be able to respond to outbreaks quickly and efficiently, he added.

Even though much needs to be done, efforts to deal with avian influenza "are picking up steam," especially in Asia, Nabarro said.

Governments around the world are aware of their responsibility to be prepared for the possibility of a pandemic and are working to meet the challenge, he said.  "We may well have reduced the probability of a pandemic happening, but we are never going to drop our vigilance."

Nabarro recently returned from a visit to Thailand, Vietnam and Burma.  He reported that all three countries are working to control bird flu outbreaks.

"Thailand and Vietnam are enjoying a measure of success in controlling the virus," he said. "But both are concerned that the virus is still present in birds in their countries, and they could still end up with the situation deteriorating at any time."

Burma, which has been criticized by the international community for not cooperating on other major health issues such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, responded rapidly and with total transparency to intense outbreaks in the country in 2006, Nabarro said.  Burmese officials did involve the international community, including U.N. agencies and officials of other governments.

The United States has invested almost $400 million in the international effort to control and contain avian influenza to help stave off a human pandemic. (See fact sheet.)

For ongoing coverage of this issue, see Bird Flu (Avian Influenza).