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Monday, October 30, 2006

Bird Flu Outbreak Could Lead To Travel Restriction, Economic Shock

One way of trying to deal with a possible big outbreak of avian flu could involve restricting 90 percent of world travel as buy time to deal with the outbreak, an expert says.

Of the 150 or confirmed cases of the H5N1 virus in humans, roughly half have died, says Joshua Epstein, senior fellow, economic studies at The Brookings Institution in Washington.

So far, victims of bird flu have contracted the illness from birds -- not other humans. Experts, however, are worried about an appearance of a human-to-human strain of bird flu, and there are a number of ways that could happen, Epstein says.

One of them is what's called the recombination scenario, in which someone could be infected with both the H5N1 avian flu and a typical influenza, so both of those are circulating in this person, and a recombination or reassortment event occurs in which a new strain is formed by a combination of those co-circulating bugs.

"The problem would be that the new bug, the reassortment, could be highly contagious from human to human like normal flu, but highly lethal like avian flu. It could have the worst attributes of both, we would have no natural immunity, there would be little if any strain-specific vaccine, limited supply of antiviral drugs of uncertain effectiveness, and voila, you have a global pandemic," he says.

The aim of cutting off much human travel would be to delay the global spread of sickness, buy time, and in the time you buy, do intelligent things like develop a vaccine and distribute it, give people good recommendations about social distancing, close schools, take measures that are likely to improve the situation, Epstein says.

"That is to say, the minute we detect 1,000 cases in any country of the world, you can do this sequentially or all at once, but if you suspend 90 percent of air travel all at once, that is what we are looking at," he says. "You can also suspend it country by country so that every time a particular country exceeds the threshold, their traffic gets clamped down."

An avian flu pandemic could create worldwide financial shocks, according to Warrick McKibbin, nonresident senior fellow at Brookings.

"Even a mild pandemic which we have modeled here as the 1968 pandemic takes about .8 percent of GDP out of the world economy which is about $330 billion," he says. "A repeat of the 1918-1919 Spanish flu of the worst scenario can take about $4.4 trillion out of the world economy, a nontrivial amount of money."

How governments respond will be key, as was the case with the SARS outbreak earlier this decade, McKibbin says.

"Those countries that refuse to acknowledge, who did not let this information become public, their outcomes at the end were much worse than those countries that were much more open and transparent," he says.


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