Battling Bird Flu
covering burma and southeast asia
Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Battling Bird Flu

By Peter Cordingley Tuesday, May 1, 2007


Peter Cordingley, the public information spokesman for the World Health Organization Western Pacific Division, tells The Irrawaddy how Southeast Asian governments are doing in monitoring and combating outbreaks of the bird flu virus H5N1

Question: Some Southeast Asian governments did very well o­n initial preparedness. Are some countries now overconfident?

Answer: It’s certainly true that some countries are doing very well and among those we can name Vietnam and Thailand. Are they overconfident? Absolutely not.

Even as well as they have done, they’ve both continued to have outbreaks in poultry of this virus. Vietnam has not had human cases since the end of 2005. Thailand’s had some more recently, and if there’s a risk to humans then the risk remains of this virus mutating. So I don’t think any country—whether doing well or badly—is complacent about the threat from H5N1.

Q: Burma has had some recent bird flu outbreaks. Is Burma doing enough to combat the virus?

A: Countries have differing levels of ability. We can see that the authorities have reacted very promptly. They’ve made known what they know very quickly, which is that there have been poultry outbreaks. And that’s a good sign. In fact, Myanmar [Burma] is working with the international public health agencies to make sure they stop this virus from spreading.

Q: Does Burma have sufficient resources to combat the problem, say compared to that of Laos?

A: We’re not in the business of making comparisons between countries. I can say that there’s not o­ne country that’s affected that has sufficient resources. And that’s why WHO continues to call for international help for affected countries.

Q: So where are we now? There are signs that so far the virus is slow to mutate into a more dangerous form.

A: In terms of the mutation of the virus, it continues to mutate and to change. It’s an influenza virus and that’s what influenza viruses do. H5N1 is acting no differently. We find different strains in different places but nothing we have seen so far suggests that this virus is developing the ability to spread more easily from chickens to humans or between humans.

Q: Is that because of the fast responses in the past to stop the spread at the source?

A: The response to the virus in the first year or so was very slow. That’s why it has a grip in a number of countries and it’s completely endemic in the environment and the poultry population. So there was nothing about the response that would enable WHO to say that is why the virus has not actually mutated at this stage into a pandemic strain. The virus had plenty of time to get a grip and do something nasty. It hasn’t done it. If you asked us why it hasn’t done it, we really don’t know.

Q: What was the aim of the recent exercise o­n bird flu preparedness that took place in the WHO Regional Office in Manila?

A: Basically it was an exercise. Everybody should understand this. If we have an outbreak of what appears to be H5N1 in a cluster of humans in an area of, say, Cambodia, the test is whether we can get the drug Tamiflu—of which there are large quantities stored in Singapore—to the outbreak area quickly to snuff out any further development of the spread of the virus.

Q: What are the key lessons learned from the last few years about bird flu and regional responses?

A: There are some things we know are key to actually stopping—if we can—influenza pandemic. Can a country identify an outbreak quickly enough? Quite clearly many countries are doing very, very well o­n this, but others are not doing as well, and there are other factors, such as is the outbreak in a remote area— even those countries that are doing well may have a problem.

Q: What is the outlook for 2007?

A: If you laid a trace map of what’s happening this year over a trace map of what happened in 2006, it’s basically the same. The virus is more active in the winter months. It’s moved again outside Asia. It’s showed up particularly in Egypt. It’s also been in Europe. It’s been in Africa again.

Last year, the worst month in terms of activity of the virus was April. So we don’t think that just because in some parts of the world there are hints of spring that the worst is over yet.

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