WHO puts world on watch for bird flu after outbreaks in several countries
Several different strains of bird flu have been spreading across Europe and Asia since late last year.
GENEVA – The World Health Organization (WHO) is on high alert and has called on all countries to closely monitor outbreaks of deadly avian flu in birds and to promptly report any human cases that could signal the start of a pandemic.
Several different strains of bird flu have been spreading across Europe and Asia since late last year, resulting in large-scale slaughter of poultry in affected countries and some human deaths in China.
According to the WHO, nearly 40 countries have reported new outbreaks of the highly pathogenic avian influenza in poultry or wild birds since November.
“The rapidly expanding geographical distribution of these outbreaks and the number of virus strains currently co-circulating have put WHO on high alert,” said director-general of the UN health agency Dr Margaret Chan at the start of the agency’s 10-day executive meeting in Geneva.
According to Dr Chan, the new H5N6 strain causing severe outbreaks in Asia was created by gene-swapping among four different viruses.
While the world is better prepared for the next influenza pandemic following the H1N1 pandemic that circled the world in 2009-2010, it is “not at all well (prepared) enough,” she said.
Chan noted that there has been a “sudden and steep increase” in human cases of H7N9 since December in China, and the WHO has not been able to rule out limited human-to-human spread in two clusters of human cases although no sustained spread has been detected thus far.
China’s delegation, led by Zhang Yang of the National Health and Family Planning Commission, told the Geneva meeting that China would carry out its obligations on communicating and responding to any outbreaks.
“Currently H7N9 overall statistics remains the same,” Zhang said. “China will continue to strengthen its cooperation and exchange with WHO in this regard.”
Under the International Health Regulations, a binding legal instrument, WHO’s 194 member states are required to detect and report human cases promptly, Chan said, adding: “We cannot afford to miss the early signals.”
Bird flu, also known as avian influenza, was first noted by veterinary scientists in the early-1900s. It is an infectious disease of birds caused by a variant of the standard influenza A virus.
Since mid-December 2003, a growing number of countries, starting in south-east Asia, have reported outbreaks of bird flu in chickens and ducks. The virus can spread rapidly through flocks of domestic poultry, and infections in several species of wild birds and in pigs have also been reported.
Humans can catch bird flu directly through close contact with live infected birds and those who work with infected chickens are most at risk. The virus is excreted, and people may inhale these germs as dust when the droppings dry out.
In humans, symptoms include fever, sore throats and coughing. People can also develop conjunctivitis. It takes three to five days after exposure to develop symptoms.
Birds may die without showing any symptoms but typically birds suddenly show swelling about the eyes and ear lobes.