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Avian Flu Fears: 1918 or 1968?

The latest issue of the Harvard Business School Alumni Bulletin carries an interview with Dr. Margaret Chan, representative of the WHO Director-General for Pandemic Influenza. Prior to joining the WHO, Dr. Chan spent 10 years as the Director of Health For Hong Kong. During that time she was in charge of managing the response to the SARS outbreak, so she's probably as experienced and well informed as anyone on the planet regarding the threat posed by the H5N1 virus. Here's the crucial Q&A:

HBS: The 1918 influenza pandemic, caused by a mutated avian virus, killed some 50 million people. How does the current threat compare?

CHAN: First, it’s important to remember that the 1918 flu pandemic was an exceptional event. More people died in 1918 from influenza than in a similar period from any other infectious disease outbreak ever, including smallpox and the plague. Comparisons to 1918 may thus be unfair. What we can say is that the world is now closer to a pandemic than at any time since 1968, when the last influenza pandemic occurred, causing 1 to 2 million deaths.

The H5N1 virus is treacherous — we know that it can jump the species barrier to infect humans and that it is prone to mutation. Indeed, every case of human infection increases the probability that the virus will mutate. We don’t know if or when the H5N1 virus might evolve into a pandemic strain that spreads easily among people, or what its lethality might be. We know only that a pandemic is possible, and that’s why the world must prepare now for the very real threat of a global public-health emergency.

Chan notes that 140 million birds have been culled around the world as of December 2005 at a cost of $10 billion which she says has largely hit poor farmers in developing countries. You can read the rest of this interesting interview here.