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WHO warns of global outbreak of bird flu
By Zhang Feng (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-09-13 07:49

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of a global outbreak of avian influenza unless greater efforts are made to fight the disease in countries already affected by it and international co-operation is strengthened.

The WHO is currently investigating one human case of avian influenza which happened in Viet Nam in August when other two cases were also reported there, a senior WHO official said over the weekend.

The infectious disease has struck several Asian countries, such as Viet Nam, Thailand and China over the past two years, killing millions of poultry.

A total of 39 human avian influenza cases, including 28 deaths, have been reported in Asian countries, such as Viet Nam.

China has yet to report any human cases of the disease, Shigeru Omi, director of the WHO's Regional Office for the Western Pacific, told reporters here.

"Compared with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), I am a lot more concerned with avian influenza," he said at a press briefing for the 55th session of the WHO Western Pacific Regional Committee which will open here today.

He said that, of course, people should not be complacent about SARS, but both governments and ordinary people are now better prepared to fight it.

However, the H5N1 virus which caused avian influenza among millions of poultry, was circulating a lot more widely than initially predicted.

"Virtually nobody will be immune to the new virus if it is a combination of human and avian viruses," the WHO official said, adding that the active movement of people, goods and food in the world today helped make the spread of the virus more likely.

"Fortunately, there have been no scientifically proven human to human cases of avian influenza so far. But if this situation continues for many years to come, there is an increasing likelihood that the virus will gain the potential to transmit on a human to human basis and that's why we have to work very hard," Omi said.

To prevent the avian virus from jumping from animals to humans, Omi urged countries to strengthen their ability to tackle the disease.

He said it was vital for member states to report cases of the disease "immediately" and also quickly detect and respond to the disease.

In addition, the WHO official called on member states to pay more attention to animal health rather than just focusing on human issues, since both SARS and bird flu began as animal diseases.

The poor living environment of animals in many Asian countries was a further reason why they had to strengthen their ability to fight avian influenza, he said.

Measures should be taken to improve the raising of poultry, such as ensuring that chickens do not live with other animals, such as ducks.

"Of course, I am calling for more efforts against the disease, rather than telling people to give up eating chicken," he said.

Omi urged various countries to co-operate more closely to tackle the problem because the disease will not just remain in one country with the increased movement of food and other goods.

Given that all countries share the same planet, he called on developed countries - which have fewer or no outbreaks of infectious diseases such as SARS and bird flu - to step up their support for developing nations.

He said that the latest information about bird flu and the outbreaks of other epidemics will be published on the WHO website.

Many key issues, including the reoccurrence of SARS and new human deaths from avian influenza, will be on the agenda when more than 300 leading health policy-makers and representatives of the WHO Western Pacific regional committee gather at the meeting which closes on Friday.

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