CTV.ca News Staff
Updated: Thu. May. 19 2005 10:27 AM ET
The World Health Organization says a global bird flu pandemic is inevitable, despite a lack of “conclusive proof” that it could be passed from person to person.
The word comes a day after Indonesian health officials said a poultry worker on the island of Sulawesi may have contracted the first human case of the bird flu virus.
A blood test from a poultry worker in South Sulawesi province came back “suspicious,” said health official Ahmadi, raising the possibility that the worker had contracted the avian flu virus.
He added, though, that the worker showed no signs of the virus when he returned for further blood tests.
Doctor Georg Petersen, WHO’s representative in Indonesia, downplayed the finding. He said mistakes in the Indonesian lab have turned out positive results in the past that, upon further inspection, turned out negative.
Only a few dozen people have so far died from avian influenza since it appeared in 2003.
But experts fear that if the H5N1 strain of bird flu virus mutates into a form that will make it easily transmittable among humans, it could spread rapidly and widely and kill millions of people.
“We don’t know whether the pandemic will occur next week or next year,” said Dr. Klaus Stohr, WHO’s influenza chief in Geneva.
“There is no evidence in any direction, but there are concerns.”
In no country has conclusive proof of human-to-human transmission been found, WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley told Associated Press Television in Manila.
“We have found a couple of cases that were very suspicious, but we couldn’t actually hammer that nail home,” he said.
The H5N1 strain in Southeast Asia has so far only jumped from animals to humans, but not from person to person.
It has killed 37 people in Vietnam, 12 in Thailand and four from Cambodia since late 2003, said Stohr.
“The little information that we have could possibly identify that the virus is changing and the way it interacts with humans is changing,” Stohr told reporters.
Fears that the virus could spread to humans were heightened earlier this week after a scientist identified the H5N1 strain in pigs on the densely populated island of Java.
Experts worry that pigs infected with both bird flu and its human equivalent could act as a “mixing bowl.” This could create a dangerous, mutant virus that might spread more easily to people — and then from person to person.