Scientists are increasingly certain that the bird flu virus H5N1 will at some point in the future mutate and pass on to humans , the only uncertainty being "when?" This would be a truly horrifying thing to happen and could create a scenario like a science fiction film.
The WHO figures are 252 cases where humans got infected through birds, and 148 deaths. If the virus does mutate and spread the infection among humans , a worldwide outbreak could take place within a few weeks . This is attributed to the weak resistance to the virus in the human immune system.
It is not only only the elderly and weakest members of society who could die from influenza. Even people in the prime of life - the 20 to 40 age range could be struck by the infection.
An imaginery account of what could happen will be screened on BBC Two's Horizon program , describing the devastation such an outbreak would wreak on the human race.The program visualises the scenes at overcrowded hospitals, empty schools and offices , and public transport in shambles.
The British government's Influenza Pandemic Contingency Plan predicts that upto 750,000 people could die in the UK, while the US says 2 million could die. In fact the US govt. is asking its citizens to prepare themselves for the worst by stocking up on medicines.
The main line of defence seems to be a vaccine. But if a virus does materialise, getting a vaccine ready will take several months. The vaccine available at present is not produced in large enough quantities, in fact only 9% of the world's population can be vaccinated with a six month supply produced globally.
Another measure which could be used is a drug to treat the flu. Roche has made available Tamiflu , a retroviral drug which is effective against the bird flu virus.
George Abercrombie , head of operations for North America, Roche, spoke on Friday about the steps being taken by the company to tackle the bird flu virus, in case of a pandemic.
The manufacturer has decided to boost up production of Tamiflu to 400 million courses of treatment yearly - 10 capsules constitute one course.
Roche is also offering the drug to the government at a 50% reduced rate, to enable stocking up on supplies in the event of a contingency. The packaging is being worked on and new formulaions are being tried.
However, Tamiflu has been used largely for ordinary flu and even then it has be given as soon as possible . What its usefulness in case of H5N1 will be, is not certain, since the virus is believed to be deadlier than the 1918 one which lead to 50 million fatalities.