With the winter flu season approaching and the world possibly on the verge of a bird influenza pandemic, the ensuing tragedy would be one counted not only in health and human lives, but also in economics.
So far, it is the poor, especially those in rural areas, who have borne the brunt of the epidemic. Some 60 people have died in four Asian countries since the current outbreak began in December 2003. The economic fallout, although already significant, has also been largely confined to rural areas. This is, however, no longer a rural or specifically Asian problem.
The H5N1 virus causing bird influenza that re-emerged in several Asian countries this year has reached eastern Europe, raising concerns that this might lead to the spread of the disease into Africa. As the disease seeps across national boundaries among the bird population, each new outbreak brings the possibility of a mutation into a more contagious and lethal menace.
A pandemic created by a highly contagious strain transmissible among humans could cause more than 4.5m deaths in South-east Asia and China alone within a year and make millions more ill. While scientists predict that the virus may become less pathogenic when it adapts to humans, even with much lower virulence the human and economic cost would be high.
According to preliminary Asian Development Bank estimates, even a modest increase in the scale of the epidemic, confined to specific areas, would cause slowdowns in trade, commerce and tourism costing South-east Asia and China $40bn. In the case of a full-blown pandemic affecting most of the region, the cost could mushroom to $150bn to $200bn. Many economic activities would be brought to a halt, while the health systems of most countries would be overwhelmed. A worldwide decline in trade would ensue, possibly throwing millions of people back into poverty and setting back Asia's economic and social progress several years.
But a disaster on such a scale can still be averted. A meeting of development partners planned next month at the World Health Organisation's Geneva headquarters could prove crucial in this respect. WHO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health have developed guidelines and recommendations for stemming the infection. The Geneva meeting should help solidify national plans by the affected countries to fight the spread of the disease and co-ordinate donors' assistance.
The affected countries had success in managing the early stages of the bird influenza outbreak through various strategies, including the mass culling of birds. They also had the experience of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 to draw from and helped by, among others, a joint initiative of ADB and WHO, have bolstered their surveillance capability and preparedness.
But these countries had neither the money nor the capacity for sustained action. Economic realities have led to some poor farmers bringing flocks back into affected areas too soon, resulting in new waves of infection. Meanwhile, inconsistent bird vaccination policies and use of poor quality vaccines might be thwarting surveillance and control of bird flu outbreaks.
Countries need significant support - both financial and technical - to strengthen animal and human epidemiological surveillance systems, develop effective and safe systems for rapid response to reported outbreaks and treat the disease. ADB is preparing new grant projects to address these issues and extending its co-operation activities with WHO and FAO.
Recognising the peril that faces the world, other donors are also clearly prepared to invest money in the problem in Asia. The key now is to ensure that the aid is efficiently delivered.
It is critical that prevention activities are undertaken in a co-ordinated manner. One of the most useful outcomes of the Geneva meeting would be to provide a framework for efficient donor co-ordination that clearly identifies the needs gaps and defines the respective roles of the different partners. Otherwise, the many pledges of cash will be of little use.
We must build on the good work that has been undertaken so far and do more to address the bird influenza threat. Hopefully, a concerted effort by the donor community now will thwart the disease before the pandemic starts and preserve not only the lives and health of its people, but also their -economies. The Geneva meeting offers just the opportunity to achieve this - it could be our last.
This article first appeared in The Financial Times