Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) The avian or bird flu is more dangerous than SARS and could cause an epidemic affecting 30 per cent of the world's population and killing anywhere between 7 and 50 million people.
The warning comes from the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has been working for the past year to keep under control the virus H5N1. The virus killed 32 people in Thailand and Vietnam. More than 100 million chickens have been culled in nine Asian countries.
Speaking at a conference in Bangkok of 13 Asian health ministers, Dr Shigeru Omi, the WHO's regional director for Asia and the Pacific, said that "we are closer now to a pandemic than at any time in recent years and no country will be spared."
"Vaccine will protect you from the disease and reduce the impact individually. But vaccination alone will not prevent this outbreak," Omi said. Currently, two US firms are working on a vaccine, but neither is likely to have one ready before March 2005.
According to WHO experts, the world must cooperate closely by sharing information promptly and openly on the virussuch as how it spreads, why it hits children more easily than adults and how quickly it is mutating.
To avoid the spread of the pandemic, Asian governments must change their practices: increase controls, stock up on antiviral drugs, and adopt new contingency plans to face the health emergency including isolating patients and mass slaughter of infected animals.
The avian Bird flu could be more deadly than the SARS virus and the WHO warns that it might break out once again this winter in Asia.
SARS is more of a city phenomenon because surveillance is greater in urban areas. By contrast, the avian flu affects rural areas where "control measures are almost non-existent".
Because the H5N1 virus can jump from animals to human and is very versatile and resilient, it poses a greater risk to human health than SARS.
The most recent outbreak started among birds but in the last months has infected tigers and domesticated cats not previously known to be susceptible to avian flu viruses.
Experts fear that a pandemic will emerge from an animal, most probably a pig, which can harbour both flu viruses that affect humans and the avian flu variety. The two would mate and produce a virus to which people have no immunity.