10/07/2005, 00.00
ASIA

Avian flue pandemic could kill up to 300 million people

International health experts warn it might impossible to stop virus spreading once the pandemic is underway. The US is looking at ways to close its borders and isolate 'hot spots".

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/SCMP) – One million Hong Kong people could contract the bird flu in an eight-week pandemic, according to Thomas Tsang Ho-fai, consultant at the Centre for Health Protection.

Yesterday, Dr Tsang outlined a worst-case scenario in which 15 per cent of the Territory's population could become sick. He warned that anti-viral drugs would have limited effectiveness "because the virus can easily develop resistance with widespread use of the drugs."

Quarantine would work in the early phases, but past 5-10 per cent of the population it would not work, he said. US-based flu expert Henry Niman agrees.

Dr Tsang refused to speculate on the number of people who might die but previous bird flu waves have killed as many as 55 per cent of the people infected.

The only possible countermeasure would be closing schools and public places and telling people to stay home.

Dr Tsang said that once H5N1 was able to spread efficiently between humans, "it will be a totally different ball game".

Experts agree that if it mutated into a strain that spread easily between humans, H5N1 had the potential to be worse than the 1918 Spanish flu. About 300 million people could die. And worse still, "a second flu wave could follow in 12 months", Tsang added.

On Wednesday Hong Kong Secretary for Health, Welfare and Food York Chow Yat-ngok said the pandemic might mean that "the whole world will collapse".

Fear is such that in China the authorities remain on a high state of alert, monitoring the ongoing outbreaks of avian flu elsewhere in South-East Asia, studying strict countermeasures in poultry production and sale to limit the risk of contagion.

For China it is also an important economic issue. The People's Republic (with Vietnam) at one time accounted for one quarter of the world' poultry exports; now the crisis has had serious negative impact on its economy.

Meanwhile, more than 65 countries and international organisations met yesterday at the US State Department for discussions as to possible steps to be taken.

In the US, officials are debating whether, in case of a pandemic, they should order closing schools and imposing restrictions on travel and the movement of goods.

US Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt said federal, state and local authorities will have to deal with quarantine decisions—isolating the sick and closing large gatherings where the virus might spread. 

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