By Julia Zappei
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The worst of the bird flu threat is over but the fight to eliminate the disease from poultry is weak — a situation that could worsen the global food crisis, health experts warned on Friday.
“The peak is over, but we still are dealing with many outbreaks, small outbreaks,” Juan Lubroth, a senior official with the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, said at an international medical conference.
“It’s like a boiling pot, and we need to keep the lid on that before it gets worse,” Lubroth said at the 13th International Congress on Infectious Diseases, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Bird flu is still active in 10 countries, down from 60 that have been affected since 2003. Hot spots include China, Egypt, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Vietnam.
Lubroth, the head of the FAO’s Emergency Prevention System, said that “drawbacks and weaknesses” remain in the fight to eliminate the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus from the poultry sector.
He said death of poultry especially affects the poor, 80% of whom own livestock for their livelihood worldwide.
Lubroth said poultry is an important, inexpensive protein source for people who wonder every day, “What are we going to have for dinner tonight, or what will be available for tomorrow?”
He warned that failure to protect their food sources could worsen the global food crisis, caused by rising prices of rice, corn and other staples.
Lubroth said 240 million birds have died or been slaughtered, and millions of people’s livelihoods shattered, because of bird flu.
Veterinary services around the world need to be strengthened and more experts trained, while reporting must be more transparent, he said, adding that countries have to use more surveillance and implement policies to deal with the disease. “We fail to see that political commitment,” he said.
Besides the threat to the food situation, bird flu could also endanger human lives more directly.
Sporadic suspected human-to-human transmission of H5N1 has been reported in Hong Kong, Vietnam and Indonesia, but none of the cases has been proven. Experts believe the virus remains difficult for humans to catch.
They fear, however, that it could mutate into a form that spreads easily among humans and trigger a pandemic that some say could quickly kill millions of people who would have no immunity to a new flu virus.
“If we want to avert a human pandemic, we must tackle the disease at the source — the source being poultry, the source being poor hygiene, the source being lack of regulatory infrastructures to improve the poultry production sector,” Lubroth said.
Still, there was no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission of H5N1, Nikki Shindo, an infection control specialist at the World Health Organization, told the conference. Bird flu is “not posing a great public health risk” to humans clinically, he said.
Shindo said that 385 people have reportedly contracted the disease since 2003, and that 241 of them have died, about half of them in Indonesia.
Sardikin Giriputro, who has been at he forefront of Indonesia’s campaign against bird flu, said that despite all preparations, “no country is prepared enough for the pandemic.”