The United States and the World Health Organization on Wednesday warned that the economic impact from a flu pandemic would enormous, and urged countries to prepare for a possible outbreak reminiscent of the infamous 1918 flu epidemic that killed as many as 50 million people.
Officials have repeatedly expressed concern that the H5N1 strain of avian influenza that has swept through poultry populations in many parts of Asia since 2003 and killing at least 60 people could mutate to become contagious among humans.
Suspected bird flu cases in humans have been detected as far away as Turkey and Romania, but so far, most of the infections have been traced to direct contact with sick fowl.
"If the (H5N1) virus mutates, it could end in an influenza pandemic," said Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary for democracy and global affairs at the U.S. State Department.
"There are also consequences for economic growth as well as regional and global security. ... It could kill millions."
Dobriansky and Health Secretary Michael Leavitt are touring Southeast Asia after U.S. President George W. Bush last month established the "International Partnership on Avian and Pandemic Influenza."
Washington is pushing for a global strategy against H5N1 and other types of influenza.
Accompanied by World Health Organization director-general Dr. Lee Jong-wook, Dobriansky met Singapore health officials and visited the country's regional infectious diseases research lab.
"At the time of SARS...The economic impact was worth billions of dollars," said Lee, referring to a 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome that killed 774 people worldwide. "You can imagine (what would happen) if a global influenza pandemic is unchecked."
A 1918 Spanish flu outbreak killed between 40 to 50 million people from rapid human-to-human transmission, reports the AP. I.L.