PARIS (Reuters) - The bird flu virus that has killed hundreds of people since 2003 has now stabilised but there is still a risk that it mutates into a new dangerous form, the head of world animal health body OIE said on Thursday.
Since the outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza re-emerged in Asia in 2003, 216 people have died of the virus, which spread quickly through Asia, Africa and Europe, affecting poultry and wild birds.
“We notice that the virus is now extremely stable but there is no basis to say that H5N1 will not mutate,” OIE President Bernard Vallat told reporters.
“Bird flu will always remain a risk, be it H5N1 or another.”
Bird flu cases are still regularly reported to the OIE.
Britain said on Thursday the flu strain had been confirmed in three wild mute swans found dead in Dorset.
Vallat said Indonesia, Egypt and to a lesser extent Nigeria, where the disease is endemic, remained the main worry because they could serve as reservoirs for the virus.
Vallat said other diseases were also being watched by the OIE, including West Nile virus which probably entered the United States though a parrot and then spread by mosquitoes to the rest of the country, killing hundreds of people.
He said Rift Valley fever, which is spreading in Africa, had a high death rate and could adapt to southern Mediterranean countries.
“Diseases can now spread faster across the world than before,” Vallat said, calling for stronger surveillance, larger government budgets to ensure countries had early detection systems and encourage rapid notification.
Vallat said the bird flu crisis had been “badly handled”.
“We lost two years. We could have stopped it in Vietnam,” he said.
But he said the widespread panic that followed the outbreak had drawn the attention of a larger number of governments to the risks of a pandemic.
“Now we are far better prepared than we were,” he added. “It will certainly be useful, I’m afraid.”
Editing by Chris Johnson