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UN agencies warn that Asia will continue to be plagued by bird flu

UN agencies warn that Asia will continue to be plagued by bird flu

Avian Influenza
New outbreaks of bird flu in three Asian countries in the past fortnight show that the virus which killed almost two dozen people and devastated the region’s domestic poultry population earlier this year remains endemic and a threat to human health, United Nations agencies said today.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said it is unrealistic to expect the virus will be eradicated soon and called on governments in the affected region to recognize that the virus will continue to circulate and that different strains of the virus may appear.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned that recent research indicates the virus is more widespread than previously thought – it has also been found in wild birds – and more deadly.

It called for human trials of an experimental flu vaccine to be accelerated and said all workers involved in culling birds should be given human flu vaccines.

Authorities in China, Thailand and Viet Nam have reported outbreaks of bird flu, otherwise known as avian influenza, in chickens over the last two weeks. These outbreaks are of H5N1, the same virus as the one that led to at least 22 deaths in Thailand and Viet Nam near the start of this year. More than 100 million birds died or were culled in at least nine countries across Southern and Eastern Asia.

FAO Animal Health Service Chief Joseph Domenech said the new cases are not a surprise because affected countries had succeeded in controlling rather than eradicating the disease.

“Eradication of the avian flu virus should be considered, at best, as a long-term task,” he said, adding epidemiological evidence indicated the virus still exists in at least five countries.

Calling on authorities to step up their surveillance against the disease, Mr. Domenech urged them to closely monitor poultry production, strengthen the biosecurity of commercial businesses and to respond immediately and aggressively to any future outbreaks.

Such measures should include restricting the movements of animals and good, launching public awareness campaigns and disinfecting affected areas, he said.

WHO said in a statement that a Chinese study released last week showed the virus was widespread among domestic ducks in the country’s south and causing increasingly severe disease.

A separate study reported by the journal Nature found that both domestic and wild birds contributed to the disease’s spread and suggested the virus may be more widespread than realized – and therefore harder to eliminate.

WHO called on the governments of affected countries to give specimens from recent outbreaks so that its staff could compare them to observe whether they are exactly the same or whether they are distinct but from the same group of viruses.

Preparations for a possible pandemic continue, WHO added, with two manufacturers in the United States producing vaccine for human trials and Asia-Pacific experts gathering in Kuala Lumpur last month to discuss the situation.