Bird flu going to cost more than SARS

An economist warned Thursday that a flu pandemic would cause a global economic slump and is likely to be more costly than severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which devastated the airline and hospitality industries throughout Asia.

"The exact estimate of how much it's going to cost, we might not know," said Martin Meltzer, senior health economist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But it's going to be larger (than SARS), it's hard to believe that it won't be."

Meltzer was speaking on the sidelines of a two-day flu conference in Singapore organized by The Lancet medical journal.

Officials have been increasingly concerned that the H5N1 bird flu virus will mutate to become easily transmissible from person to person, possibly sparking a deadly pandemic.

H5N1 began ravaging Asian poultry stocks in late 2003 and has killed at least 113 people worldwide.

A flu pandemic would have dire consequences on travel and the service industry, said Meltzer, adding that these businesses were "very vulnerable."

He also said the flu virus spreads more quickly than the SARS virus, due to its shorter incubation period, adding that SARS was contained with appropriate quarantine measures.

"We've yet to successfully prevent the disease of influenza with quarantine because it moves so fast, (and) the incubation period is smaller," Meltzer said. "So, what will happen is, and history has shown that, influenza will spread around the world, a pandemic."

Meltzer said U.S. businesses "were only just beginning" to formulate plans for a possible pandemic that would allow them to maintain productivity and curb the virus's spread.

The U.S. government said Wednesday that businesses must make plans now to keep functioning and not count on a federal rescue. In its updated national pandemic response strategy, it estimated that up to 40 percent of the American work force could be off the job for two weeks in a severe pandemic, reports the AP.

I.L.