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WHO: Bird flu may dwarf SARS woes
( 2004-01-15 11:02) (Agencies)

The bird flu that has raced through chicken farms in Asia and killed at least 12 people in Viet Nam could become a bigger problem for the region than SARS, the World Health Organization said yesterday.

A 15-month-old baby girl breathes with assistance during her treatment for the avian influenza strain A in an Hanoi hospital January 14, 2004. Viet Nam on Wednesday reported two more suspected bird flu cases,the baby girl and a man, and up to 12 Vietnamese died from 'bird flu.' Health officials said pigs could be possible carriers of the illness. [Reuters]
The bird flu's symptoms in humans include fever and coughing and eventual pneumonia - similar to SARS.

The avian flu has killed millions of chickens in Viet Nam, South Korea and Japan, where officials have ordered mass culls to try to contain the outbreak. Chinese mainland, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Thailand have all banned poultry imports from countries affected by the bird flu.

WHO says tests are being conducted to determine if the deaths of six additional children in Viet Nam are linked to the disease. It has stressed that there has been no person-to-person spread of the disease. Health officials attribute infections in humans to contact with the feces of sick birds.

If the virus develops the ability to spread through human contact, it could become a big health crisis, WHO regional coordinator Peter Cordingley said Wednesday in Manila, Philippines.

It's "a bigger potential problem than SARS because we don't have any defenses against the disease," Cordingley said. "If it latches on to a human influenza virus, then it could cause serious international damage."

Alan Hay, director of the London-based World Influenza Center, agreed that the virus could become more potent if mixed with a human virus, but added "we know relatively little about what is actually necessary if that happens."

The bird flu scare comes just as China grapples with new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome, another ailment believed to have originated in animals and which ravaged the region's economy in a major outbreak last year.

China last week confirmed its first SARS case of the season, and has since announced two additional suspected cases, all in southern Guangdong province.

The avian flu deaths in Viet Nam, an adult and two children, were confirmed on Tuesday as Influenza A or the H5N1 strain, the same virus found in sick chickens in the country's south, WHO said.

The same strain of bird flu killed six people in Hong Kong in 1997, when more than 1 million chickens and ducks were culled.

A Vietnamese man transports chickens at a market in Ho Chi Minh City January 14, 2004. [Reuters]
Health officials say they believe there is no danger from eating properly cooked meat or the eggs of affected chickens. However, they are not 100 per cent about it.

Japanese officials said 10,000 chickens had died from the bird flu and thousands of others would be slaughtered.

The disease is spreading fast among poultry in Viet Nam, where more than 1 million chickens have died in the latest outbreak. Farmers have been ordered to destroy all sick birds.

Thailand, among the world's largest poultry exporters, declared itself free of bird flu, despite thousands of poultry deaths in the country. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said Wednesday local chickens are dying of less dangerous and more controllable diseases, but not the fatal H5N1 strain .

Still, Singapore announced it was suspending some of its chicken imports from Thailand.

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