The good news is most countries have plans to deal with a global bird flu pandemic. The bad news is most of those plans are untested and could fail, United Nations officials are saying.
Almost all of the 148 countries that provided data on the spread of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus ahead of an international conference the week of Oct. 20 in Egypt reported they had contingency plans.
David Nabarro, the UN's iinfluenza coordinator, called it a major achievement to gain such widespread awareness since "preparedness for a global emergency of this scope was an issue largely unaddressed about three years ago."
Twenty infected countries had outbreaks of the disease during the first nine months of 2008, down from 25 during the same period last year, officials said. Human infections and deaths slowed.
However, the threat of a pandemic remains "unchanged" partly because many of the nations contingency plans are largely untested, according to the 105-page report from Nabarro's office and the World Bank, which has said a pandemic could cost the world economy as much as $3 trillion.
Bird flu has killed more than 245 people in 15 countries in Africa, Asia and Europe since late 2003, with Indonesia the worst-hit nation, according to the report.
The H5N1 bird flu virus also continues to decimate poultry stocks, but officials worry that the public has largely lost interest because the virus has not mutated into a much-feared form that could spread easily among people. It remains hard for people to catch, with most human cases linked to contact with infected birds.
Experts believe the spread is largely related to the trade of birds and their products, including cross-border smuggling. Wild birds are believed to play a role, but a recent WHO review published in the New England Journal of Medicine said the risk of the H5N1 virus reaching North America through migrating birds remains low.