GENEVA -- Countries around the world need to start rehearsing plans for tackling a human flu pandemic to identify hidden obstacles and ensure the best response once the virus arrives, the World Health Organization said yesterday.
Health specialists at the first major international coordination meeting on bird flu and human flu urged countries that haven't done so to draw up plans for handling an inevitable pandemic, which the World Bank estimated could result in more than $800 billion in lost gross domestic product over a single year.
Specialists agree a global flu outbreak capable of killing millions of people is a certainty.
What is also certain is that the virus will come from bird flu, scientists said. But what is unknown is whether the H5N1 strain that has ravaged poultry stocks in parts of Asia and spread through Eastern Europe will be the culprit.
It is the leading candidate, however, and authorities are trying to stamp out poultry outbreaks as fast as possible to reduce opportunities for the virus to mutate into a form that can pass easily between people and spread worldwide. Currently, the virus is hard for people to catch, and most deaths have been linked to human handling of infected poultry.
WHO has been urging countries to draw up pandemic flu plans for almost a decade, but many did not act until the bird flu outbreak.
The H5N1 virus has killed at least 63 people across Southeast Asia since 2003, mostly in Vietnam. Today, Vietnam confirmed its 42d human death -- a 35-year-old man who became sick after his family bought a chicken from a market in Hanoi.
Six months ago, fewer than 40 countries had a strategy, said Mike Ryan, director of epidemic and pandemic alert and response at WHO. Now, 120 countries have planned responses.
''That's pretty unprecedented in public health, but we need to push it further, into the implementation, the rehearsing, and testing," Ryan said.