Optimism Follows Global Bird Flu Summit

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Poultry was on the lunch menu and on the agenda at World Health Organization (WHO) this week as animal and health experts from 100 countries discussed how to respond to the avian flu virus that has killed 65 people in Asia. The fear, of course, is that the H5N1 virus will kill millions more if it mutates into a form that can be transmitted from human to human—the WHO conservatively estimates that in this worst-case scenario, the virus will infect between one quarter and one third of the world's population, and kill between 2 million and 7.4 million people. And yet, the three-day conference ended on a remarkably optimistic note.

Health officials expressed satisfaction at the fact that governments appear to have heeded dire warnings of the consequences of failing to prepare: Over the past month alone, the number of governments that have put in place pandemic response plans has risen from 20 percent to 60 percent. "We've reached a greater consensus and clarity on what has to be done to control the spread of the H5N1 virus," Dr. David Nabarro, United Nations Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza told TIME. "If we continue to make inroads, we'll end up with a smaller and less virulent pandemic that we expected."

We may also end up weathering the storm relatively unharmed. While the flu outbreak will likely cause "a widespread illness and disturbance to many aspects of our lives, people shouldn't start imagining the worst," Nabarro said. "Death rates will be comparatively low. Most people will be fine."

The World Bank estimates that rooting out avian flu will cost up to $1 billion over three years. A conference on financing that operation will be held in Beijing next January. The Geneva gathering hammered out a plan to combat the virus by culling infected poultry, strengthening early warning systems and pandemic preparedness, and building up regional stockpiles of anti-viral drugs and influenza vaccines. The WHO already has a stockpile of three million doses of Tamiflu that can be quickly deployed, while the drug's manufacturer, Roche, this week announced plans to increase production to 300 million treatments by 2007.

Despite the almost palpable aura of optimism in the WHO's hallways as the conference concluded on Wednesday, the danger of a pandemic remains present and real. Nobody knows when or whether H5N1 will mutate to humans and unleash the dreaded pandemic, and whether we will be prepared in time to minimize its impact. At least now, however, the alarm has been sounded—and heard.