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International experts warn Caribbean could be hit by bird flu

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A panel of health experts at an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) conference in Washington has warned that the avian influenza virus could affect the Caribbean and Latin America.

The experts, from the IDB, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the World Bank and the United States’ Agency for International Development (USAID), concluded that given the trends in the virus’s behavior, there is a strong risk that human-to-human transmission could occur, creating the possibility of a pandemic situation.

Some officials at WHO say that the risk of a pandemic is not a question of “if” but “when.”

Influenza experts consider the risk of avian flu in the Caribbean and Latin America to be relatively low, since birds flying south from the U.S. are not believed to intermingle with birds heading to America from Siberia, where one of the latest outbreaks occurred among birds, not humans. But they warned that the current perception of low risk could change, given the presence of the H5N1 strain of the virus in the Canadian waterfowl.

“Many countries in the region are vulnerable to global pandemics because their epidemiological surveillance systems are weak, especially for animal surveillance,” said IDB health specialist André Medici.

Risk Rank

The British consulting firm Maplecroft has developed a Pandemic Risk Index that ranks 161 countries. In that study, seven countries in the Caribbean and Central America are considered at extremely high or high risk, including Haiti, Barbados, Grenada, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador.

PAHO’s Dr. Oscar Mujica estimates that if a moderate flu pandemic infected 25 percent of the Caribbean and Latin American population, more than 334,000 people would die over the course of the first eight weeks. If the pandemic were severe, the number of deaths could rise to 2.4 million.

But health is not the only factor to consider, though. An avian influenza pandemic could also have significant economic consequences for the region.

“Over 515 million work days could be lost if a moderate pandemic hit the region; a severe pandemic could increase that number to almost 730 million,” Dr. Mujica said, noting that his estimates are only illustrative and not meant to be taken as absolute predictions. “The direct costs for this lost time could be US$15 billion in the former case, or US$21 billion in the latter.”

Then there are the risks to the region’s poultry products industry, which produces $18.5 billion in poultry and $5 billion in eggs annually, according to PAHO’s Dr. Cristina Shneider. Poultry accounts for 40 percent of the protein consumed in the Caribbean and Latin America. Each person in the region consumes 25 kg of poultry and 2.5 kg of eggs annually.

On a worldwide scale, a global flu network has been established, led by the U.S., Australia, the United Kingdom and Japan, to work toward avian influenza prevention and monitoring. As part of the global network, 113 National Influenza Centers (NICs) have been established worldwide, of which 25 are located in the Caribbean and Latin America.

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