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Don't discount bird flu

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  • Don't discount bird flu

    Don't discount bird flu
    President's adviser warns against apathy, sees pandemic threat as real, urges faster drug development,0,4044701.story?coll=ny-health-print

    Newsday Staff Writer

    ARLINGTON, Va. - A top biodefense adviser in the Bush administration acknowledged Friday that people are tiring of the drumbeat about pandemic flu, but he characterized the threat as real and urged countries worldwide to quicken the pace of drug development and vaccine research.

    "This needs to be a priority. People have already begun to talk about pandemic fatigue," said Dr. Rajeev Venkayya, President George W. Bush's special assistant on biodefense in the Department of Homeland Security.

    Venkayya, addressing 300 infectious disease specialists and public health officials from around the country attending an influenza conference here, underscored that preparing for pandemic flu puts in place vital resources in the event of bioterrorism.

    "Going forward, it's insufficient to have a biodefense strategy based on a one-bug/one-drug approach," Venkayya said.

    In a world of emerging new infections, preparedness remains of uppermost importance, he told the gathering.

    The two-day meeting, which ended Friday, provided a forum for the federal government to launch its new public service announcement, which will be televised nationwide within the next few weeks.

    The spot features three children who each ask an adult family member complex questions about bird flu and pandemic preparedness. The feature ends with a boy asking his grandfather whether the family has a preparedness plan in place. Viewers are urged to visit the federal Web site on pandemic flu,

    Venkayya said that if a flu strain comparable to the deadly flu virus that triggered the 1918 pandemic were to strike today, an estimated 350,000 children nationwide would die within two months. The 1918 outbreak was the deadliest flu season in the history of humankind. An estimated 50 million people died worldwide.

    Other experts who addressed the meeting emphasized that the threat of a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 flu is not imminent. But the potential menace remains alive, they said, because of the continuing presence of H5N1, the virus that causes bird flu.

    Dr. Timothy Uyeki, an influenza expert at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said H5N1 has undergone so many mutations that numerous subtypes are now circulating worldwide. Birds, he said, are in the midst of a sweeping pandemic.

    "This is an enormous agricultural problem," Uyeki said. "The impact is global."

    More than 50 countries, he said, have reported evidence of H5N1 since 2003 when the virus re-emerged. The pathogen was first recognized as a threat in 1997 when scores of birds in Hong Kong were infected and a few bird-to-human cases demonstrated its lethality.

    Renowned virologist Dr. Robert Webster, who investigated the human deaths in 1997, said H5N1 is not going to disappear anytime soon. The professor of virology at St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital in Tennessee said the virus will continue to circle the globe.

    Venkayya said preparedness should go beyond pharmacological planning. For example, he said, utility companies will have to determine how to keep power flowing and phone systems running. Experts estimate that half of the U.S. workforce could be affected if a major flu pandemic were to strike.

    On the pharmacological front, Venkayya said the ever-mutating nature of H5N1 necessitates the need for vaccines and anti-viral drugs.

    "I think we need to continue to put pressure on our international partners" to step up vaccine research and drug development, he said.

    Tracking bird flu

    The World Health Organization confirmed a bird flu death in Nigeria last week,

    the first human death from the disease in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Human toll

    Reports since 2003 (in '07)

    Cases Deaths
    1. Vietnam 93 (0) 42 (0)

    2. Indonesia 81 (6) 63 (5)

    3. Thailand 25 (0) 17 (0)

    4. China 22 (0) 14 (0)

    5. Egypt 19 (1) 11 (1)

    6. Turkey 12 (0) 4 (0)

    7. Azerbaijan 8 (0) 5 (0)

    8. Cambodia 6 (0) 6 (0)

    9. Iraq 3 (0) 2 (0)

    10. Nigeria 1 (1) 1 (1)

    11. Djibouti 1 (0) 0 (0)

    Total cases


    8 in 2007

    Total deaths


    7 in 2007