If there is one issue that highlights the selfish incompetence of governments and scientists throughout the world, it is the chicken flu virus called H5N1. From its initial emergence in 2003 in Vietnam, H5N1 outbreaks have now occurred in 40 countries, resulting in a growing number of deaths in birds and humans during its relentless spread across the world.
H5N1 is a virus that affects mainly birds; it first came to attention during a serious outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997. During the 1997 outbreak, the virus infected eighteen people and claimed six lives. The Hong Kong authorities did not mess around and took a positive harsh step of culling practically every chicken in Hong Kong. The policy by Hong Kong was a success and H5N1 vanished.
In 2003, H5N1 was back in the world headlines. This time H5N1 was located in Vietnam. Unlike Hong Kong, the government and people of Vietnam were slow, inefficient, and reluctant in taking the steps needed to stamp out the virus quickly. Vietnamese farmers were worried about their loss of income and the Vietnamese government was worried about the country’s poultry industry. Vietnamese farmers hid their birds and government officials wasted resources hiding, rather than addressing, their problems with H5N1.
Vietnam lacked the infrastructure, political will, and the finances to tackle H5N1. The virus spread throughout Vietnam. Most world leaders considered H5N1 a Vietnamese problem and the world media mostly ignored the issue. The World Health Organization made noises, as did a few experts, that H5N1 was not an issue that should be ignored, but Vietnam got very little help. H5N1 then broke out of Vietnam into neighboring countries. Again countries failed to acknowledge the problem until H5N1 had spread beyond all hope of controlling it.
Now nearly three years later in 2006, with 40 countries reporting H5N1 outbreaks, the same story plays out. Governments and farmers are slow and hide the extent of their H5N1 problem for political and economic reasons. Identification of H5N1 infection is slow, taking as much as a week to identify the virus in the few overworked labs around the world that are able to test for it. Once identified, action by governments against H5N1 are slow, disorganised, and half-hearted. Problems have included lack of trust between Nigerian farmers and their government, to complete denial by North Korea of any H5N1 infection; these issues have contributed to the spread of the virus.
Sadly, even in the World Health Organization (WHO) there is a similar trend of lack of cooperation. The WHO holds a huge database of genetic information of every H5N1 test result that it has failed to share with other experts and labs around the world. The failure by WHO to share information about H5N1 has hampered efforts to monitor the genetic changes in the virus and undermines the ability of many experts to research the vaccines to counter a future possible H5N1 human pandemic.
From where I stand, the only winner from this lack of action and cooperation by scientists and governments is H5N1.