New bird flu outbreaks seen in poultry, but humans mostly spared: UN agency

3 February 2006

The United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today warned that it expects to see new outbreaks of the deadly bird flu virus in poultry this year but only sporadic cases in humans, although it repeated calls for countries to come up with strategies to deal with a possible pandemic.

In a press statement from Geneva, WHO said among its priorities for 2006 would be to continue to work closely with its 192 member States and with international organizations to improve surveillance of the disease, but despite recent human cases in Turkey and Iraq a surge in human deaths seems unlikely.

“This is still pretty much an animal disease and is rare in humans. The control measures should be containment of the source, at the farm level,” said Dr. Margaret Chang, Director of the WHO’s Communicable Disease branch.

Commenting on the test results of the recent suspected human cases of bird flu in Iraq, Dr. Chang confirmed that a 15-year old girl who died of pulmonary conditions had the H5N1 virus. Results on two others were not yet available, Dr. Chang said, but she corrected rumours in the media that there were large numbers of people infected with the avian influenza in Iraq.

During the last two years, several countries have reported outbreaks of avian influenza caused by the H5N1 virus in people, and close to 100 have died, most of them in Viet Nam. In addition more than 140 million chickens have been slaughtered in an effort to contain.

So far, the virus has only spread from infected animals to humans, but WHO has warned that it could change into a form that spreads easily from person to person, triggering an influenza pandemic that could kill tens of millions of people worldwide.

In humans, treatment with antiviral medicines is one way to reduce death and illness, and WHO has been building up drug stockpiles at different locations worldwide for quick distribution in case of an emergency.

Dr. Chang said the agency has been assisting the Government of Iraq in building its stockpiles of drugs and that a shipment of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu was on its way to the country.

Last month, donors pledged $1.9 billion to fight the spread of the disease, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a massive, coordinated international response to the virus.


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