Large number of human deaths by bird flu in Pakistan is a remote possibility owing to the fact that conditions here are not favourable for virus spread, but the government must remain vigilant to forestall any untoward happening. It was learnt by The Nation on Saturday.
According to a recent report issued by a UN health official David Nabarro, a new flu pandemic could happen at any time and kill between 5-150 million people around the world. Nabarro, who is charged with co-ordinating responses to bird flu, said a mutation of the virus affecting Asia could trigger new outbreaks, and the consequences of which in terms of human life, when the pandemic would start, would be extraordinary and very damaging.
However, Prof. Dr. Masood Rabbani, Director University Diagnostic Lab of the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences nullified such concerns, as far as Pakistan was concerned. He maintained that Pakistan was comparatively a safe region where so far not even a single incidence of bird flu had been reported. "The National Reference Lab on Poultry Diseases (Islamabad) had conducted studies and investigations into bird flu, but not a single case of H5N1 – name of the virus which causes bird flu – has been discovered so far," he added. On other hand, the Lab had discovered H7 and H9 viruses in birds, "which do not cause bird flu. Nevertheless, a mutation can occur in these viruses, which can prove to be dangerous," he said.
Bird flu had swept through poultry and wild birds in Asia since 2003. It had killed huge numbers of birds and led to more than 60 human deaths. Nabarro, coordinator for avian and human influenza, said the likelihood that the Asian virus could mutate and jump to humans was high. On the other hand, Prof. Rabbani maintained that here in Pakistan chicken farming was isolated whereas in the Far Eastern states, "combined farming of pigs, ducks and chickens is in practice, which is one of the primarily causes of bird flu. Pig is a like a ‘mixing vessel’ which can cause the production of many variants of the influenza virus. Fortunately, in Pakistan we do not have pig industry. Therefore, there is a remote possibility of bird flu in this part of the world," he stated.
UN health official Nabarro said the number of deaths from any future influenza pandemic would depend on where it started from, how quickly it was discovered and the kind of response they got from governments. "The human-to-human contact has not been established so far. Even then we cannot rule out the possibility of any such happening in future and the government should remain vigilant with its check system in place, and preparations must be made to deal with any untoward happening," said Prof. Rabbani.
Recently, the agriculture ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) endorsed a three-year plan to combat the spread of the virus, and pledged $2 million to fund research and training.
While answering a question about risk caused by migratory birds, tourists and Pakistanis coming back from other countries, Prof. Rabbani maintained that virus transmission through migratory birds was a possibility. "But again its chances are minimum because the kind of migratory birds Pakistan receives, are mostly from Russia, where bird flu incidences are far far less as compared to the South East Asian countries. However, this must not be neglected, as migratory birds and ducks should be monitored. On the other hand, we need to have an effective and comprehensive infrastructure and system placed at our border openings and airports, so that the virus careers can be checked and dealt with accordingly. Presently, the government must start random checking of persons, especially coming from the Far Eastern countries," he stated.