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Urgent bird flu summit in Rome
( 2004-02-04 09:05) (Agencies)

Health experts are meeting in Rome for an emergency bird flu summit as deaths from the disease mount in Asia and fears rise the illness may have reached Europe.

Health authorities in Germany said they were testing two women for possible bird flu infection.

Urgent bird flu summit in Rome
A worker checks chickens at Indonesia's biggest slaughterhouse in the outskirts of Jakarta, February 3, 2004. The H5N1 bird flu virus strain, which can be deadly to humans, has been confirmed in Indonesian chickens, a government official said on Tuesday, but there have been no cases yet found in people.  [Reuters]
One of the women fell ill after returning from Thailand, but officials say it is unlikely they have the disease.

Meanwhile, health officials in Thailand said 102 people with flu-like symptoms were being "examined closely" -- up from 81 a day earlier. They have yet to be moved into the suspected case category.

Bird flu has already killed 13 people in Asia. A 6-year-old boy in Thailand, a teenage boy in Viet Nam and a 58-year-old woman who raised chickens in Thailand are the latest confirmed deaths.

The latest Thai deaths mean that all of those in the country with confirmed cases of the illness have died. Officials are awaiting test results on 18 suspected cases, including 11 people who have died.

While the virus has spread to 10 nations, all human deaths have been in Viet Nam and Thailand, and most of the infections have come from direct contact with sick birds.

However, the World Health Organization says its investigation has been inconclusive in the case of a Vietnamese family, and that human-to-human transmission could not be ruled out.

Two sisters died from bird flu in Viet Nam, and the WHO said it was investigating whether they caught the respiratory illness from their brother in what could be the first instance of humans transmitting the disease in the current outbreak.

While limited transmission of the virus between humans is not considered a serious danger, experts fear the virus might mutate into a form that passes easily between people

Far from over

For its part, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which is hosting the Rome meeting, has warned that the bird flu outbreak is far from over.

"Bird flu remains a serious public and animal health threat and continues to spread," The Associated Press quoted the FAO's He Changchui as saying.

"The eruption of new infection cases in Thailand, China and Viet Nam shows that the disease is far from being under control."

Experts meeting in Rome include high-level veterinary officials from stricken countries and representatives of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the FAO said.

The U.N. World Health Organization and the World Animal Health Organization are also participating.

The experts are meeting behind closed doors, with the results of their discussions set to be announced Thursday.

While FAO officials said they believe the disease is spreading within Thailand and Viet Nam.

On Tuesday, the Chinese government said it has found bird flu in one province and is looking at the possibility of flu in two others.

A previously suspected case of bird flu in poultry China's Guangdong province has been confirmed, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture announced.

The ministry said suspected cases were under investigation in two new provinces -- Gansu and Shaanxi.

New suspected outbreaks also were reported in Hubei, Hunan and Anhui provinces, where cases already have been confirmed or suspected.

The ministry said the strain of the virus identified in Guangdong was the H5N1 strain -- the more deadly variety -- and that no humans had been infected.

The report raises to four the number of confirmed cases in China, AP said.

Dwindling chances

The WHO has urged China to take swifter action against bird flu, warning that its chances to contain the disease may be dwindling.

WHO's Beijing spokesman Roy Wadia told CNN that WHO and Chinese officials must meet to develop an urgent national plan for combating the disease.

Beijing has closed poultry markets and processing factories in some bird flu-affected areas.

In addition to Viet Nam, Thailand and China, bird flu has been discovered in Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia. A different strain of bird flu has been detected in Taiwan.

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