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Alert over bird flu pandemic

London Guardian | February 21 2005

The avian flu virus H5N1, which has killed 42 of 55 known sufferers in Asia, has the potential for a lethal and frightening pandemic if it mutates into a form that can spread between humans, a leading US scientist has said.

The world's worst pandemic, Spanish influenza, claimed 20 million lives worldwide in 1918, but killed only one in 100 of its victims. H5N1, which has spread from wild waterbirds to poultry, has a death rate of 76%.

"I think it is very frightening to see such a high case fatality rate," Nancy Cox, chief influenza scientist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, told the conference.

She said a flu pandemic of some kind was "almost certain" - but that it was not possible to say whether it would be an H5N1 pandemic.

Other flu viruses could cause pandemics, and all posed a risk to health. "We need to be developing vaccines, and stockpiling antivirals where possible," she said.

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