A top U.N. public health expert warned Thursday that a global influenza pandemic could come at any time and claim anywhere between 5 million and 150 million lives, depending on steps the world takes now to control the bird flu in Asia.
Additionally, the bird flu virus is likely to mutate into a strain that can be passed person to person, Dr. David Nabarro of the World Health Organization told reporters at a Thursday news conference at the United Nations in New York.
"We expect the next influenza pandemic to come at any time now, and it's likely to be caused by a mutant of the virus that is currently causing bird flu in Asia," Nabarro said in a report from The Associated Press.
Nabarro's comments came as governments and international organizations intensified efforts to combat the H5N1 strain of bird flu.
The United States Senate on Thursday agreed to spend $4 billion to stock up on anti-viral drugs and increase global surveillance for the disease. But the money, attached to an unrelated fiscal 2006 spending bill for the military, has not been embraced by the House of Representatives.
Earlier this month U.S. President George W. Bush announced a plan at the United Nations calling for global resources and expertise to be pooled to fight bird flu. The United States will host a planning meeting on the subject next week, reports CNN.
According to Scotsman, Nabarro said with the almost certainty of another flu pandemic soon, and experts saying there is a high likelihood of the H5N1 virus mutating, it would be "extremely wrong" to ignore the serious possibility of a global outbreak.
"The avian flu epidemic has to be controlled if we are to prevent a human influenza pandemic," Nabarro said.
The 1918 flu pandemic killed more than 40 million people, and there were subsequent pandemics in 1957 and 1968 which had lower death rates but caused great disruption, he said.
In a new pandemic, Nabarro said, "the range of deaths could be anything between 5 and 150 million which is a range that's often quoted at me."
"I believe the work we're doing over the next few months on prevention and preparedness will make the difference between, for example, whether the next pandemic leads us in the direction of 150 (million) or in the direction of 5 (million)," he said.
"So our effectiveness will be directly measured in lives saved and the consequences for the world," Nabarro said.