- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

GENEVA | The onset of a global influenza pandemic could deal a serious blow to the limping world economy struggling to emerge from the worst recession in more than 60 years, economists and officials say.

Think tanks, financial analysts and World Bank economists have conducted studies of the possible implications of a swine flu pandemic. They used the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, which devastated the economies of China, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the threat of an Avian (H5N1) human bird flu pandemic of 2005-07 as benchmarks to estimate scenarios of the possible impact that a mild or severe pandemic would have on the world economy.

A study by the Lowy Institute of Sydney, Australia, estimates that under a mild pandemic scenario of 1.4 million deaths, global output would shrink by 0.7 percent, while a severe pandemic like the 1918 Spanish flu could claim up to 71.1 million lives and shave 4.8 percent off the world economy.

Dr. Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general for health security and environment of the World Health Organization (WHO), told reporters Thursday that the important epidemiological feature of the swine flu virus is that “we continue to see human-to-human transmission, community-level transmission, primarily in North America. We are not seeing [that] yet anywhere else.”

He also tried to explain why the global health agency was paying so much attention to this outbreak even though so many of the influenza cases are mild.

“The situation is evolving; we still don’t know how the future will evolve,” he said.

“Will the virus change over time, over the next few months, and perhaps year, and become more dangerous than it is now? The big unknowns that were there a few weeks ago, they’re unknown today,” Dr. Fukuda said.

“If the virus becomes established outside North America, and if we do move into a pandemic, then our expectation is that we will see a large number of people infected worldwide. This is what typically happens with pandemics.

“So if you look at past pandemics, it would be a reasonable estimate to say that perhaps at least a third of the worlds population would get infected with this virus.”

A senior U.N. economist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said, “If it takes hold, it could be terrible because the world economy is so weak.

“It would have a devastating effect on tourism, travel, the food industry and international trade in goods, among other sectors,” the official said.

Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s director-general, and other top officials at the Geneva-based global health agency are reminding health authorities and governments around the world that the current virus is a new phenomenon and not to get complacent and let their guard down.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also weighed in this week.

“There is still much that is not known about the strain and the dangers it poses,” he said. “We should avoid a false sense of security. … In the face of uncertainty, we must be vigilant.”

The WHO’s pandemic alert stands at Phase 5, one step short of the onset of a global pandemic - triggered when sustained community transmission of the virus is taking place in at least two countries in two separate WHO-designated geographical regions.

So far, sustained transmissions have only been confirmed in Mexico and the United States.

Anti-viral drugs are the first line of defense by health authorities trying to contain the spread of the pandemic virus until an effective vaccine can be identified and pharmaceutical manufacturers given the go-ahead to ramp up production, which could take four to six months.

WHO experts have pointed out that under the best conservative estimates only about 1 billion to 2 billion doses of flu vaccine could be produced in the first year of a pandemic.

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