WASHINGTON—Experts are warning that the world faces a huge health threat from the deadly bird flu on the eve of a conference in Vietnam on how to fight the virus.
The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Julie Gerberding told a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that bird flu poses the single biggest threat to the world right now and health officials may not yet have all the tools they need to fight it.
"This is a very ominous situation for the globe," Gerberding said, calling it the “most important threat that we are facing right now… We have this highly pathogenic strain circulating widely in poultry and ducks. There are really wonderful opportunities for this virus to either reassort (mix) with human strains of influenza or with other avian species."
"I think we can all recognize a similar pattern probably occurred prior to 1918," she said, referring to the 1918 flu pandemic of influenza, which also passed from birds to people and killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide.
The H5N1 avian flu, which first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997 and has since popped up twice, is evolving and can jump directly from birds to people, killing an estimated 72 percent of diagnosed victims, Gerberding said. Officials have documented 45 deaths so far from avian flu.
This is a very ominous situation for the globe... We have this highly pathogenic strain circulating widely in poultry and ducks... I think we can all recognize a similar pattern probably occurred prior to 1918...
In Hanoi, the director of animal health at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Joseph Domenech, called the virus "a sword of Damocles" hanging over the world.
"The time is ripe today for the international community to see how the virus constitutes an enormous sword of Damocles in terms of public health and the rural economy," Domenech said. "The conference in Ho Chi Minh City has to acknowledge this so we can take both urgent action and long-term measures against the disease."
The H5N1 virus has already forced the culling of millions of birds in Asia and killed people in Vietnam and Thailand.
Vietnam is hosting a conference on bird flu from Wednesday with representatives from more than 20 countries and organizations, including major donors and United Nations agencies.
The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the FAO are jointly organizing it.
The conference is in Vietnam's southern economic capital Ho Chi Minh City, an hour's drive from the mouth of the Mekong Delta where the poultry population has been decimated since last year.
Bird flu has affected three countries so far this year—Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand. It was also reported in China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, and South Korea last year.
The FAO’s senior animal emergency prevention officer, Juan Lubroth, praised Vietnam’s handling of the virus.
"I think that the Vietnamese authorities have put a lid on the problem," Lubroth told RFA’s Vietnamese service.
"Therefore, what we see today is not as devastating as it was a year ago. I think that they have done a tremendous job at identifying the hot areas of virus activities. Of course, we're really concerned anytime there's a human fatality caused by virus H5N1," he said.
Dr. Nguyen Tran Hien, chief of the Vietnamese Central Hygiene and Epidemic Institute, told RFA’s Vietnamese service his team would present research to the conference on bird flu outbreaks in Vietnam’s northern provinces.
Fear of the virus is meanwhile making itself felt all over Vietnam.
Our restaurant has stopped ordering chicken or serving any chicken, since more than a month ago. It seems like nobody wants to eat chicken anymore.
"Our restaurant has stopped ordering chicken or serving any chicken, since more than a month ago. It seems like nobody wants to eat chicken anymore," one chef in Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Binh District said.
"Everyone is scared," said a woman in Long Xuyen Province. "I think people will buy only the chickens or eggs that have been through a thorough veterinary checkup."
"Nobody dares to eat chicken, even eggs,” said another woman, in Dalat. “You can't find any chicken or duck in restaurants of markets. People won’t buy pork if it's put near chicken, no matter what,” she said.