The country worst hit by bird flu, Vietnam, confirmed its 42nd human death Tuesday from the virus, as the World Health Organization warned governments to be ready for when, not if, a deadly pandemic arrives that could kill millions and cost the global economy US$800 billion (677 billion) in a single year.
In Geneva, experts at the first major international coordination meeting on bird flu and pandemic human flu urged countries to draw up plans for an inevitable human pandemic. Experts agree a global flu outbreak capable of killing millions of people is a certainty. What is also certain, scientists say, is that the virus will come from bird flu, though not necessarily the current strain, H5N1.
WHO has been urging countries to draw up pandemic flu plans for almost a decade, but it was not until the bird flu outbreak in Asia became a clear threat that many sprang into action. In recent months, bird flu has made its way to parts of Europe.
Six months ago, fewer than 40 countries had a pandemic flu plan, said Dr. Mike Ryan, director of epidemic and pandemic alert and response at WHO. Now, 120 countries, or 60 percent of the WHO member states, have a plan.
The plans include improving early detection of disease, increasing the ability of hospitals to cope with sudden heavy traffic, and the stockpiling of drugs and vaccines.
The fear of bird flu mutating into a form easily transmitted between people is greatest in Asia, where at least 63 people have died of the H5N1 bird flu virus since 2003. Most of the deaths have been linked to direct contact with infected birds.
Vietnam on Tuesday confirmed its 42nd human death from bird flu, its first in more than three months, a Health Ministry official said.
The 35-year-old man, who died on Oct. 29, was admitted to a Hanoi hospital four days after his family bought a prepared chicken from a market near his house in the Dong Da District of Hanoi, said Nguyen Van Binh, deputy director of the Preventive Medicine Department under the Ministry of Health. Other family members did not show any symptoms of bird flu, he said.
Vietnam has ordered 25 million tablets of the antiviral drug Tamiflu from Swiss-based Roche Holding AG, Tuesday's Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported. Tamiflu is one of the few drugs that is believed to be effective against bird flu.
The newspaper quoted Cao Minh Quang, director of the pharmaceutical administration department under the Ministry of Health, as saying talks with the company on a possible license for Vietnam to produce a generic version of the drug were still inconclusive. In China, authorities warned Tuesday that fake bird flu vaccines for poultry were threatening public health and said an unapproved product was being sold in northern Liaoning province, the site of a recent outbreak.
"This fake medicine could result in serious consequences," Jia Youling, chief veterinary officer of the Ministry of Agriculture, said in a television interview. "It could cause very serious harm to both people and poultry."
China suffers from rampant and sometimes dangerous product piracy. Bogus medicines that have none of the declared ingredients on the packaging are common.
China has reported four bird flu outbreaks in the past four weeks, resulting in the culling and vaccination of tens of millions of birds, though no human cases have been confirmed.
On Sunday, Beijing reopened an investigation into whether bird flu killed a 12-year-old girl and sickened two people last month in cases originally ruled not to be from H5N1, reports the AP. I.L.