BRUSSELS, Belgium -- At a time of bioterrorism fears, influenza should not be overlooked as a force of nature or a potential weapon of terrorists, disease specialists said Tuesday.
Flu has the potential to become a pandemic, scientists said at a conference sponsored by the European Union. They called for efforts worldwide to counter the possibility.
"We don't need a bioterrorism attack for the next pandemic to happen," said Professor Albert Osterhaus, director of the Dutch Influenza Center.
Osterhaus pointed to the 1918-1919 Spanish flu outbreak that killed up to 40 million people worldwide, many more than those killed in World War I. Flu outbreaks in 1957-58 and 1968-1969 killed over a million each time, he said.
Considering that the most virulent strains of flu hit about every 30 years on average, scientists are expecting another major outbreak soon.
"The question is not if, but when we are going to have another pandemic in the foreseeable future," said Osterhaus, co-chair of the conference.
During an average year, some 50,000 people in Europe die of the flu, more than the number of road deaths, Osterhaus said. Infants and the elderly are particularly susceptible, but during major epidemics, up to 30 percent of the population can catch the disease.
Terrorists could trigger an influenza outbreak, said Dr. Robert Webster, virologist at St. Jude's Children Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
"Any technologist in the world can now generate any influenza virus they wish, like the one in 1919. If the wrong people use this technology, they can determine when a pandemic will start," he said during a break in the conference.
EU Health Commissioner David Byrne agreed that planning for pandemics is vital and urged more research into vaccines and antiviral agents.
"Whether they are caused by influenza viruses or other, politically motivated pathogens, the planning challenge for our authorities is largely the same. This is particularly crucial in these anxious times," Byrne told the conference.
Byrne called for a greater awareness of the threat posed by flu and expanded vaccination programs. He urged improvements in the early-warning and rapid-response systems for potential outbreaks around the 15-nation EU.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, the bioterrorism threat became reality when anthrax was spread in the United States. Five people have died, including three who came in contact with anthrax-tainted mail.
The fear that terrorists could spread smallpox, thought to have killed more people than any other infection in history, has added to those anxieties.
"In a sense, anthrax and the possible smallpox threat spills over in increased awareness of biological agents. Governments have to become aware of them," Webster said.