Bird flu is not going away anytime soon, the World Health Organization said Monday, as South Asian health officials agreed to cooperate in preventing the disease from spreading.
The officials adopted a resolution extending a temporary ban on all poultry and egg imports from countries affected by bird flu. The import of pet birds from all countries will also be temporarily banned.
"The outbreak is not going to be contained in one or two months," D.N. Kumara Rai said, head of the WHO's communicable disease department in Southeast Asia.
Rai spoke on the sidelines of an emergency meeting of officials from the seven-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to discuss ways to protect their region from the H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus.
Ten countries — mostly in East Asia — are battling the disease in fowl, and have destroyed more than 60 million birds to contain the virus.
The virus has jumped to humans in Vietnam and Thailand, killing 20 people. Health experts say people infected with the disease contracted it from sick birds, but have repeatedly expressed concern the virus could link with the human flu virus and become transmittable through person-to-person contact.
Rai repeated those fears Monday.
"What we are afraid of is that if avian flu virus mixes with the human influenza virus, this will result in a new virus that is readily transmittable from human to human," Rai said. "Once this occurs, we are really, really afraid of a global pandemic just like the Spanish flu that caused almost 40 million deaths" in 1918.
Meanwhile, a joint resolution adopted by South Asian officials Monday extended a temporary ban on all poultry, egg and pet bird imports from countries affected by the bird flu.
The SAARC countries — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and the Maldives — also will set up a center in New Delhi where samples can be tested. The resolution also called for stricter border surveillance.
"We are in the vicinity of another region which is reeling under this epidemic and it might affect us," Indian Health Secretary Prasad Rao said.
The meeting brought together health, agriculture and livestock officials from the seven countries, the first time they had met to face a possible health crisis. The political enmity between India and Pakistan has often thwarted SAARC health care programs.
According to Pakistani officials and poultry industry representatives, between 1.5 million and 3.5 million chickens around the southern city of Karachi were killed by the weaker H5N2 bird flu strain or slaughtered.
"Since Jan. 1, there has been no case. The situation is under control," said Dr. Baz Mohammed Junejo, the director-general of animal husbandry and livestock for the Sindh Province of Pakistan.
(China Daily February 17, 2004 )