H5N1 outbreak: No rest for the weary!

Updated On: Sep 19, 2006

The avian flu pandemic appears to approach a new danger level, that of public fatigue globally and ignorance on the ground (especially the vulnerable areas), while threats of viral mutations and human-to-human transmission remain real.

As Richard Nesbit, WHO's acting regional director for the Western Pacific, told reporters prior to a weeklong meeting in Auckland, New Zealand on September 16, "after three years now, I'm sure that many journalists and the public are starting to get tired of the same message that there's a potential global pandemic around the corner…”

WHO warns that the risk of a flu pandemic remains high – taking 144 lives since the H5N1 hit Asia in late 2003 – particularly with fresh outbreaks in Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand, and the issue remains at the top of WHO’s agenda for the third straight year.

The World Banks also warned on September 17 that the avian flu pandemic poses a 'real and substantial' financial threat to the global economy by as much as US$2 trillion (S$3.2 trillion) and more than 3% from world gross domestic product with negative impact on trade and economic activity. The Bank also estimates that 1% of the population, or about 70 million lives would be lost to the pandemic. In response, the Bank has committed financing of about US$150 billion for projects in 11 countries to combat bird flu. The USAID also pledged on September 15 that it would provide an additional US$3.2 million to build on its $14.65 million bird flu prevention and control programme for Indonesia

Indonesia, with its death toll of 49 to the virus, the current world’s highest, is under the glare of international attention. Recent reports are looking up however, as People`s Welfare Coordinating Minister Aburizal Bakrie announced a new US$47 million loan package from the World Bank on September 15 to stop the spread of the flu virus.

"The objective is to prevent the avian influenza from developing into the next stage. Culling, compensation, vaccination and bio-security are clearly vital to reducing the threat," said Bayu Krisnamuthi, chief executive of the National Committee for Avian Influenza Control and Influenza Pandemic Preparedness (Komnas FBPI).

The September 15 meeting hosted by Komnas FBPI between UN agencies, the World Bank, donor countries and government agencies in Indonesia discussed priority measures such as animal control, risk communications, information and public awareness and disease surveillence in animals and humans.Dr Naborro, the top UN official for bird flu, in particular noted Indonesia’s progress in recent months, in setting up new systems for early detection of disease outbreak and coordinated response measures, such as participatory disease surveillence and participatory disease response. These programs are being expanded to more than 150 districts in Java, Sumatra and Bali with the support of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and donor agencies including USAID, AusAID and the government ofJapan.

The Bogor administration has also begun its mass vaccination (albeit controversial) of chickens and other poultry in the municipality to prevent the spread of bird flu since September 13. Head of the animal health unit at the Bogor Agribusiness and Husbandry Agency Herlien Krisnaningsih, announced plans to cover the 600,000 birds within the next month. But the programme has seen some public resistance with concerns that the vaccine could be fatal to pets, especially valuable ones.

A worrying phenomenon could jolt public fatigue back to a new level of alertness. Indonesia has confirmed another ‘retrospective case’ of bird flu in West Sumatraon September 15. The victim had cared for his infected sister while she was in hospital for six days and had not come into contact with diseased or dead poultry. While initial tests came up negative, follow-up test revealed a confirmation for H5N1. Even as the man recovered quickly from the virus, the WHO could not rule out the possibility of a human-to-human transmission.


Bogor starts free bird flu vaccinations (The Jakarta Post, 15 September 2006)

Indonesia receives US$47 million to overcome bird flu (Antara, 15 September 2006)

Indonesia confirms another retrospective case of bird flu (Antara, 15 September 2006)

U.S. offers more bird flu funding (Jakarta Post, 16 September 2006)

Bird flu poses 'real and substantial' economic threat: WBank (AFP/The Straits Times, 17 September 2006)

Risk of pandemic remains high: WHO (AP/The Straits Times, 17 September 2006)