Pandemic could rage for six months before a vaccine is made available The bird flu virus will be more lethal than Sars, killing up to 100 million people in the worst-case scenario of a flu pandemic, a visiting World Health Organisation official said yesterday. Shigeru Omi, regional director of the WHO Western Pacific office, said a vaccine against the H5N1 virus would not avert a pandemic that could rage for five to six months before one was made available. Dr Omi repeated his claim that the WHO's estimate of two million to seven million people dying from bird flu was conservative. 'We are talking at least of 7 million [deaths], but maybe more - 10 million, 20 million and the worst case 100 million,' Dr Omi said. 'If it happens, it will just be incomparable with the Sars situation.' Dr Omi was among top WHO officials who hosted an emergency meeting which ended on Friday with health ministers of 13 Asian countries pledging to boost co-operation to head off the threat of a flu pandemic. Dr Omi said bird flu would pose more challenges to the WHO and the international community than Sars. 'Sars is primarily an urban disease. It started in hospitals where the level of surveillance is quite high quality,' he said. 'Avian flu is a disease which affects rural areas where surveillance is rudimentary and surveillance of animals is non-existent.' Dr Omi said a vaccine was not a panacea or a 'magic bullet' against a pandemic. 'Vaccine development is very important and it certainly helps the health burden on the individuals. But unfortunately a vaccine alone will not avert a pandemic, especially for the first five to six months when we would have to do without any vaccine,' he said. He said it was important for all countries to come up with a pandemic-preparedness plan which would include stockpiling of antiviral drugs, isolation and public health measures, and contingency measures for essential public services that would be disrupted. Dr Omi added it was possible the region would experience Sars cases this winter, but he did not think a large outbreak was likely. Bird flu has infected 44 people this year, killing 32 people in Thailand and Vietnam. More than 100 million chickens have been destroyed in nine countries across Asia. Meanwhile, Secretary for Health Welfare and Food York Chow Yat-ngok said setting up regional slaughterhouses was a more feasible short-term solution to fighting bird flu than having one central unit. 'We have not been able to identify a suitable area for establishing a central slaughterhouse. There is a higher chance of regional slaughtering being put into practice in the short term as we can set up slaughterhouses in deserted wet markets, existing slaughterhouses and other areas controlled by the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department,' he said.