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Bird flu fatalities almost triple, spurring need for treatments

Bird flu fatalities have almost tripled this year as the lethal virus spread across Asia, Europe and Africa, prompting calls for increased supplies of medicines to fight the virus and any pandemic it might spawn. Since January, at least 54 people have died from the H5N1 avian influenza strain in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, China, Djibouti, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq and Turkey, according to the World Health Organization. That compares with 19 fatalities in Vietnam and Cambodia in the first six months of 2005. Human cases create opportunity for the virus to mutate into a lethal pandemic form. “The situation worldwide remains as serious as ever,'' said Ian Jones, a professor of virology at the University of Reading in the U.K. “Screening and preventative measures are as appropriate as ever.'' Pharmaceutical companies, including Sanofi-Aventis SA, GlaxoSmithKline Plc, MedImmune Inc., Vical Inc., Acambis Plc and CSL Ltd. are racing to produce pandemic flu treatments amid concern over H5N1, which was found for the first time in wild birds and domestic poultry in 38 countries since February. “We have seen three major pandemics in the last century,'' Albert Osterhaus, the head of the Department of Virology at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands, said in a June 22 phone interview. One in 1918 known as Spanish flu “killed 1-2 percent of the world population. If the threat is there, we should be prepared,'' he said.

Flu Conference: Tomorrow Osterhaus, whose laboratory was the first to identify human infection from the H5N1 strain, will co-chair the opening session of the First International Conference on Avian Influenza in Humans in Paris. The two-day conference at the Institut Pasteur will bring together more than 200 health experts, policy makers, researchers and drugmakers to discuss the latest advances in therapies aimed at treating and preventing avian flu and averting a pandemic. “Our aim is to launch the discussion between the different actors involved in the fight against avian influenza starting from medical and scientific specialists to government crisis management specialists,'' said Marvin Edeas, chairman of a committee organizing the meeting. “We will try to answer many questions: is the medical profession ready to fight against a pandemic? Is the world ready to face a human avian flu pandemic?'' The rate of new infections has almost doubled to one every two days this year, from almost two a week in 2005. Since late 2003, at least 130 of the 228 people are known to have been infected with H5N1 have died, according to the Geneva-based WHO.

`Virus Pressure': The rising human tally “continues to reflect the underlying virus pressure in both domestic and, to some degree, wild birds,'' Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said in a June 22 interview from Minnesota. “We're in what is an unfolding experiment of Mother Nature,'' Osterholm said. “We're trying to explain it as if we've already done the bench work and can tell you what's going to happen. That's just not the case.'' Before 1997, when the first known human H5N1 case occurred, scientists didn't believe an H5 subtype of the flu virus could infect people. Pandemics last century were caused by viruses of the H1, H2 and H3 subtype. More than 209 million poultry have died or been culled worldwide in the past 30 months because of outbreaks of the H5N1 virus, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said last week. 

A severe winter in Russia and the Caucasus area at the end of last year pushed migratory birds south and westward, the FAO said. By February, initial outbreaks in wild birds and poultry were reported in Iraq, Nigeria, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Greece, Italy, Azerbaijan, Iran, Germany, India, Egypt, Austria, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Slovakia, Switzerland and Niger. The following month, Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro, Pakistan, Albania, Poland, Georgia, Cameroon, Myanmar, Denmark, Sweden, Israel, Afghanistan, Jordan and the Czech Republic reported initial outbreaks. They were joined by Burkina Faso, Palestine Authority, U.K., Sudan and Ivory Coast in April and Djibouti in May. In contrast, no initial outbreaks were reported in the first half of last year. In the first half of 2004, Vietnam, Japan, Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Laos, Indonesia and China reported H5N1 for the first time.