10/02/2005

World Health Agency Tones Down Alarm on Possible Flu Pandemic - New York Times

GENEVA, Sept. 30 (AP) - The World Health Organization moved Friday to drastically revise downward what it considered alarming predictions that a possible pandemic from the avian influenza virus ravaging parts of Asia could kill as many as 150 million people.

The health organization, a United Nations agency, was deluged with inquiries after Dr. David Nabarro, who was appointed Thursday as the United Nations coordinator for avian and human influenza, cited the 150 million estimate during a news conference.

While the health organization's flu spokesman at its Geneva headquarters did not say the estimate was wrong, he said 7.4 million deaths would be more realistic. Scientists have made predictions ranging from fewer than 2 million to 360 million. Last year the health organization's chief for the Asia-Pacific region predicted 100 million deaths, but until now that was the highest figure publicly mentioned by one of the organization's officials.

"We're not going to know how lethal the next pandemic is going to be until the pandemic begins," the Geneva spokesman, Dick Thompson, said Friday. "You could pick almost any number" until then, he said, adding that the organization "can't be dragged into further scare-mongering."

Experts agree there will be another flu pandemic - in which a new human flu strain spreads globally - but it is unknown when it might happen or how bad it might be. It is also unknown whether the flu strain circulating among Asian poultry, known as H5N1, will be the origin of the next pandemic.

But experts are tracking it just in case, and governments across the world are preparing themselves for such a possibility. Two factors will have a major influence on how many people will die from the next flu pandemic, experts say. One is the attack rate, the proportion of the population that becomes infected. The other is the death rate, the proportion of the sick who die.

World Health Agency Tones Down Alarm on Possible Flu Pandemic - New York Times

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