Bird flu crops up at virology conference

14 November 2005

Delegates at Virology Africa 2005, hosted at the Graduate School of Business last week, had a full four-day line-up.

They had, after all, gathered in Cape Town to talk about a rogue's gallery of microorganisms that are doing the rounds in Africa. These include haemorrhagic fever viruses (like the Ebola virus), the coronaviruses behind both the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and other respiratory tract infections, the human papilloma viruses (the major cause of cervical cancer) and, of course, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Conspicuous by its absence, though, was mention of H5N1, the virus that triggered the current outbreak of bird flu in southeast Asia and elsewhere. (Other than what Dr Yuri Pervikov of the World Health Organisation [WHO] could slot it into his half-hour talk on current and future influenza vaccines.)

That wouldn't do, however, so conference organisers decided to slap on an eleventh-hour evening session on bird flu to the programme. The focus of the add-on was on ways to curb the spread of the disease and, should it well become the global pandemic many fear it may, how best to treat those infected.

Dr Robert Breiman, director of the Kenyan-based International Emerging Infections Programme of the US's Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the University of Stellenbosch's Professor Wolfgang Preiser, both at the coalface of Asia's brush with SARS in 2003, listed lessons that they believe Africa should learn from that episode - political will, airtight border controls, travel recommendations, surveillance, warnings of avian die-offs, communication, preparing hospitals for what could come, stockpiling ample supplies of antivirals (difficult), and finding a vaccine (which could take time) and producing plenty of it (also difficult).

Things are happening in South Africa, however. According to Dr James Kitching of the Western Cape Provincial Veterinary Laboratory, both ostriches and commercial backyard poultry, as well as some migratory birds, are being monitored and tested.

Worries about Africa's capacity to cope with the possible pandemic remain, though. And many of the concerns raised at the meeting echoed those heard elsewhere around the world, be it resource-strapped Asia or cash-flush US - not enough labs to run diagnostics, not enough trained staff, not enough respirators and ventilators, not enough of the right protective kit, not enough money.

The problem, said Professor Barry Schoub of South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), is that governments are loathe to lay out billions on a pandemic that may not happen. "It's really a threat more than a disease." That doesn't mean the politicians can let the grass grow under their feet, though. According to scientists, pandemics come along in 10- to 50-year cycles, and humanity is about due another big one.

"I don't think the efforts will be wasted even if the pandemic doesn't appear right away," said Breiman.

For some diseases, tomorrow is always another day.

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