Flu Pandemic a 'Matter of Time,' Expert Says

A potential flu pandemic is like waiting for an earthquake along the San Andreas fault: It's just a matter of time before the next big one strikes, a health expert said Tuesday.

More research must be conducted in Asian countries and changes in the H5N1 bird flu virus must be closely monitored to prepare for a possible flu pandemic that could kill millions, said Dr. Roger Glass, the new director of Fogarty International Center at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

"I think of it as the earthquake in San Francisco, you know it's on the fault, you know it's going to occur but you can't tell if it's going to occur this year or next year or the year after," he said on the sidelines of a health conference in Beijing. "But it's clearly going to happen and the only way you can prepare is to build your houses with structure."

Glass said vaccine research and strong global collaboration are essential, along with increased surveillance and better diagnostics.

Glass also stressed the need for investment in information systems to keep the public informed about public health issues, not just emerging infectious diseases like SARS and bird flu. He said rumors and misinformation can be "a real problem."

"Fear is a greater problem than the price of having an answer or a way to investigate it or a surveillance system in place that can give important answers," he said during a four-day conference launching the Disease Control Priorities Project.

Health experts fear the H5N1 virus will eventually mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, potentially sparking a global bird flu pandemic. So far, the virus remains hard for humans to catch and most cases have been traced to contact with infected birds.