A new strain of flu has turned up in Hong Kong

e combination of virulence and high transmissibility needed to trigger a pandemic. And it may well be that the new Hong Kong virus presents no special danger. Kendal, who headed the CDC's influenza programme in the 1980s, says that health officials find themselves in a dilemma each time a virus crosses over from pigs. "The question is: how do you not cry wolf while avoiding closing the door after the horse has bolted?"

But given the obviously devastating impact of a flu pandemic, no one can afford to be complacent. A team at the CDC has predicted that the next pandemic could kill up to 200 000 people in the US alone (New Scientist, 24 July, p 5).

Hong Kong was the scene of a major flu scare two years ago, when a strain of flu from chickens struck 18 people, killing six of them. Fortunately, the outbreak was contained and there was no evidence of human-to-human spread. But in the wake of that scare, Peter Patriarca, a senior official with the US Food and Drug Administration who was responsible for drawing up an emergency action plan for the US in the event of a pandemic, warned that too few resources were being devoted to the project.

Even now, says Daniel Lavanchy, head of the WHO's influenza programme, only ten nations have produced pandemic action plans. "The next pandemic could begin anywhere at any time," says Martin Meltzer, a CDC official working on the US action plan. "We need better surveillance now, and it's not happening."


Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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