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WHO: Bird flu death rises to 15; vaccination recommended
Updated: 2004-02-05 14:20

Two more children died of bird flu in Asia, raising the death toll to 15 and experts at an emergency meeting in Rome said they would recommend vaccinating healthy poultry as part of a broader strategy to control the disease.

So far Vietnam and Thailand are the only countries reporting human cases. Both announced new deaths on Wednesday - a 16-year-old girl in Vietnam and a 6-year-old boy in Thailand - bringing the death toll to 15. Many victims have been young children.

Health officials have said safely destroying infected birds is the best way to contain the disease. Mass slaughter and import bans have ravaged Asia's poultry industry, and some 50 million birds, mostly chickens, have been killed.

The World Health Organization is working to develop a human vaccine, but an animal vaccine against a closely related strain of bird flu already exists. Some farmers have used it to protect against other forms of bird flu and experts believe it could give chickens partial protection from the deadly virus.

"People reached the consensus that we don't need to kill all the chickens or birds," said Chen Hualan of the Chinese Agriculture Ministry, one of many officials and experts from around the world attending this week's meeting in Rome.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization called the meeting in the goal of finding a unified approach to fighting the disease.

Dewan Sibartie of the World Animal Health Organization, an independent animal health and welfare organ, said the conference has included vaccination among its recommendations, to be announced on Thursday.The recommendations will focus on coordination, surveillance and transparency in reporting, the U.N. food agency said.

Sibartie said some affected countries had failed to pass on information about outbreaks to the World Animal Health Organization within the required 24 hours.

"Had they reported in time, we could have taken more timely action. We could have provided expertise and other kinds of assistance a long time back," Sibartie said.

Juan Lubroth, an animal health official with the FAO, said the recommendations would also include protective gear for poultry farm workers.

"We've also discussed rehabilitation: how can we get villages and even countries back onto their feet," Lubroth said.

Measures would include restocking slaughtered animals and re-evaluating bio-security procedures to encourage good farming practices, he said.

Most human cases have been traced to contact with sick birds, and although human-to-human transmission has not been ruled out in the case of one Vietnamese family, experts say there is no sign of a new strain that can easily infect many people.

At the same time, they say the wide range of the outbreak boosts chances the virus could mix with a human flu virus and create a hybrid that would be a global menace for people.

"The virus is faster than we are," said Peter Cordingley, the World Health Agency's regional spokesman in Manila, Philippines. "Until the surveillance systems are working properly, we're going to have trouble keeping up with the virus."

China said the outbreak there continues to grow among its bird populations. Officials added the provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi and Yunnan to their list of regions with suspected cases. Twelve of the country's 31 regions are now on the list.

China also opened a center in Beijing to oversee regional efforts to fight bird flu.

Alarmed by the virus, callers in Vietnam have swamped four telephone hot lines set up this week to answer bird flu queries.

"I've gotten too many calls from people all over the country," said Dr. Tran Van Tien at Hanoi's National Institute for Hygiene and Epidemiology. "There were people calling at 4 a.m."

Thailand's deputy prime minister, meanwhile, said officials there believe they will eradicate the virus from farms by the end of the week. The disease has struck more than half of Thailand's provinces, and its billion-dollar poultry industry faces devastating losses.

In Singapore, where no cases of the flu have been reported, residents were told to hand over any pet chickens for extermination as a precaution. The government said Wednesday that 57 pets had been given up for slaughter.

Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea and China's Taiwan also are battling the disease.

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