ECONOMY

Poverty spreads bird flu

Poverty stops African and Asian nations from taking measures against bird flu, raising the risk of a pandemic from the virus that has so far killed about 130 people, a top European health official said yesterday. While European countries have culled millions of birds and taken precautions to stop the spread of the disease, little is done in Asian and especially African countries, said Zsuzsanna Jakab, director of the EU’s disease prevention agency, ECDC. «They cannot afford to cull chickens and they eat even infected animals. This is very serious,» she told Reuters in an interview. «This situation in Africa is a new situation for the global public health and therefore we have to keep it under scrutiny.» The deadly H5N1 remains mainly a virus for birds but experts fear it will change into a form easily transmitted among humans, sweeping the world and killing millions within weeks or months. Since 2003, it has spread rapidly from Asia to Europe and Africa, taking 130 human lives among 228 cases in 10 countries. About 50 countries around the world have reported cases in animals. «If the pandemic is to come from the H5N1 virus… I would assume that it would come from those countries where the disease is endemic, so it’s quite likely from Asia or Africa,» Jakab said. «There, they are not culling infected animals, the main strategy of fighting avian influenza.» Unlike Europe, where the disease is believed to spread from migratory birds to domestic poultry, in Africa it is mainly contracted through cross-border commerce, both legal and illegal, she said. Good news The good news is that the virus appears not to be mutating quickly to a strain that easily moves from human to human. «What we have seen is that the genetic setup of the virus in the last 10 years has not changed in humans,» said Jakab, who is in Athens for a meeting of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). «In animals there has been some change in the genetic setup but not in humans and that is a good sign,» she added. But strict precautions must be in place, especially during the wild bird migration seasons when risks are higher. «In Europe, the main route of transmission has been the migrating birds… and therefore we have to be prepared,» she said. «I think that we have to get used to a seasonal pattern of bird flu.» The more human cases that appear, the higher the risk avian flu will mingle with human flu and jump from human to human. «The risk rises with every human case. The (bird) migration… puts some populations more at risk,» she said.