UNITED NATIONS - Bird flu, already spreading across Asia
, the Middle East and Africa
, is expected to jump across the Atlantic Ocean
to the Americas within a year, a senior U.N. official said on Wednesday.
"It is certainly within the next six to 12 months. And who knows, we've been wrong on other things, it could be earlier," said Dr. David Nabarro, coordinator of the U.N. drive to contain the pandemic in birds and prepare for its possible jump to humans.
He predicted the leap across the Atlantic Ocean
would take place in two stages, carried in the next few months by wild birds flying from West Africa
to the Arctic region, and then brought southward to North and South America
six months later.
"I just think that every country in the world now needs to have its veterinary services on high alert for H5N1, to try to make sure that they don't get caught unawares and find that it gets into their poultry populations without knowing," Nabarro told a news conference at U.N. headquarters.
"And I will bet you that many countries in the Western Hemisphere are doing just that," he added.
The H5N1 bird flu virus has led to the deaths of millions of birds in more than 30 countries. It has spread to over a dozen new countries in the past month and infected 175 people since 2003, killing 96 of them.
Although it remains an avian disease, and rarely affects humans, health
officials fear it will mutate into a form that can easily jump from human to human, triggering a pandemic in which millions of people might die.
For the immediate future, the spread of the disease among birds in Africa is the main focus of the U.N. team -- which includes the World Health
Organization, the Food
and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health, Nabarro said.
The disease has been confirmed in Niger and Nigeria but there have been bird die-offs in other African nations and confirmation of its further spread is expected soon, he said.
To spur preparedness, representatives of more than 40 sub-Saharan African countries will be meeting in the Gabonese capital Libreville later this month, he said.