Report from a Conference on Bird Flu

Avian influenza was the subject of a recent international congress in Bangkok. Robert Webster, member of the Infectious Diseases Department at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, was there.

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BILL WOLFF, host:

You may remember this H5N1 or avian influenza. It's called bird flu. The disease first appeared 10 years ago in Hong Kong. And in 2006, it was all over the news - how bird flu spread to humans and how, in some cases, people spread bird flu to other people. We haven't heard much about it in the past several months.

This week, there have been reports of new cases of bird flu in humans in Indonesia, in India, in Saudi Arabia. And in Bangladesh, the world's most densely populated country, H5N1 spread among the poultry population has reached crisis levels. What level of danger does the virus currently pose to humans worldwide?

Joining us to talk about this is Dr. Robert Webster, member of the Infectious Diseases Department at St. Jude's Children Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. He recently returned from an international congress about bird flu in Bangkok, Thailand.

Dr. Webster, thank you for joining us.

Dr. ROBERT WEBSTER (Director, World Health Organization Collaborating Center on the Ecology of Influenza Viruses in Lower Animals and Birds; Recipient of Rose Marie Thomas Chair in Virology, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital): Good morning.

WOLFF: What can you share with us about the conference in Bangkok? What were the big topics on the agenda at the conference?

Dr. WEBSTER: The big topics were the continued circulation of H5N1 bird flu in so many countries. And that we have to realize that there is a pandemic going on in the domestic poultry in Eurasia. The point was made by several people, that for every human infected, a million chickens die. And so, this is ongoing, and the risk to humans is still there.

WOLFF: How would you describe that risk to humans? I can recall, in 2006, the federal government - the United States government - alerted media outlets. They had special meetings with media outlets to talk about what to do when the bird flu pandemic started to affect humans in wide swaths worldwide. That hasn't happened yet. What would you say the risk to humans is, as we speak?

Dr. WEBSTER: I think the - your point is well taken. It hasn't happened yet. But scientifically, we don't know if it will happen or when it will happen. This is the great difficulty. And when we realize that 60 percent of those humans that get infected die, it's one of those you're-damned-if-you-do and you're-damned-if-you-don't situations. We must prepare for it. It's like the Katrina situation or a tsunami. You've simply got to prepare for it. And it's - these warnings out there, that it is happening - and we don't know enough about this virus to be able to make the prediction that it will not happen…

WOLFF: Even if…

Dr. WEBSTER: …if we could.

WOLFF: …but, in any case, as regards human-to-human transmission, can you talk about the crisis to populations because the poultry population is so widely affected - that is, are people's sustenance levels dropping because of bird flu? Are people going hungry because of bird flu?

Dr. WEBSTER: I think you've touched on one of the very serious aspects in the lower income areas of the world - in Bangladesh, now, in India, Indonesia. It's the underprivileged poor people of the world that are really affected. These people eat chickens when they become sick and die. And these are the only protein sources they have. The other difficulty is that if you are a small backyard poultry farmer, and your chickens or ducks or geese start to look a little sick, what do you do? You take them to the market so that you'll get some money to live on. And these are the things that are happening.

WOLFF: And…

Dr. WEBSTER: And we don't have this under control.

WOLFF: And in 2006, finally, you said that you had a three-month supply of food and water at home in case of the pandemic. Do you still have that stock pile, and do you still recommend that to be?

Dr. WEBSTER: I absolutely do, of course. It could still happen. We hope to God it does not.

WOLFF: Dr. Robert Webster, thank you very kindly for joining us.

Dr. Webster works at Saint Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Thank you, Dr.

Dr. WEBSTER: You're welcome.

STEWART: Coming up on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, the most e-mailed, commented on and viewed stories on the Web. We will be collating the Internet, so to speak.

WOLFF: That's a very involved process, to collate the entire Internet.

STEWART: Well, you know, we're involved people here at The BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

All right, producers, get your Most ready. Head on down to the studio.

Stay with us. We'll be back in about 60 seconds.

WOLFF: this is the THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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