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UN bird flu experts arrive in South Korea to assess risk following outbreaks in poultry

UN bird flu experts arrive in South Korea to assess risk following outbreaks in poultry

A team of bird flu experts from a joint United Nations crisis centre set up to deal with the emergency arrived today in South Korea to assess regional risks and protective measures following three recent outbreaks of the disease among domestic poultry in rural areas south of the capital Seoul.

A nine-person team from the Crisis Management Centre (CMC), an initiative between the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), will conduct a 10-day mission collecting epidemiological data at the invitation of the Government, the agency said.

“The… team includes international and Korean veterinary epidemiologists, wildlife veterinarians, biologists and poultry specialists who will pay particular attention to the relationships between poultry production, marketing and wildlife sectors to… better understand potential disease movement among chickens and risks to or from wild birds,” FAO said.

“The team will be looking at any wild bird deaths on infected farms or adjacent wetlands, as well as collecting environmental samples that may lead to a better understanding of disease emergence in the area… Besides the wild bird angle, the CMC experts hope to investigate many other potential risk factors, such as the handling of sick and dead birds.”

By the end of the mission, the first full-scale multidisciplinary deployment by the CMC since it was established in October, the team hopes to be able to provide answers to some of the questions surrounding the mechanisms of disease introduction and its spread.

Although well over 200 million birds have died worldwide from either the H5N1 flu virus or preventive culling, there have so far been only 258 human cases, 154 of them fatal, since the current outbreak started in South-East Asia in December 2003, and these have been ascribed to contact with infected birds.

But experts fear the virus could mutate, gaining the ability to pass from person to person and, in a worst case scenario, unleash a deadly human pandemic. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic that broke out in 1918 is estimated to have killed from 20 million to 40 million people by the time it had run its course two years later.

FAO says winning the battle against the virus demands a long-term vision with more surveillance as well as stronger emphasis on hygiene and movement control throughout the animal production and marketing chain.