Published Jan 23, 2004
Thursday January 22, 11:25 AM
WHO warns of mounting opportunities for bird flu to mutate
The World Health Organization says it is concerned the H5N1 strain of bird flu is spreading across Asia and providing "mounting opportunities" for the virus to mutate into a far more lethal form.
"We see this as an issue of growing concern that more countries have H5N1 infections among poultry stock," Bob Dietz, the UN health agency's spokesman in Vietnam, told AFP.
At least five people have died from the HFN1 virus in Vietnam, the worse hit country, while 17 others suspected of contracting it are receiving treatment at two hospitals in Hanoi.
"Although we have seen no evidence of human-to-human transmission the next step would be for that to occur," Dietz said.
"It is impossible to predict a time or date for this but there are mounting opportunities for the virus to alter its form and begin affecting the human population."
The warning came after Thailand confirmed that a child had contracted bird flu and that three others were being tested for the disease.
South Korea, Japan and Taiwan are also battling their own outbreaks but there have been no reports of human infections.
The WHO has warned that the world could face another influenza pandemic if H5N1 swaps genes with a common flu virus, creating a lethal pathogen.
An estimated 50 million people died from the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. This was followed by pandemics in 1957-1958 and 1968-1969. Another is considered inevitable and possibly imminent.
Only the swift culling of 1.4 million birds in Hong Kong during an outbreak of H5N1 in 1997 that killed six people averted a global health crisis, according to the WHO.
Thailand convenes bird flu summit
The illness is linked to close contact with live chickens
Thailand is inviting representatives from all six Asian nations hit by the bird flu crisis to an emergency summit.
EU and Japanese officials will also be invited to the meeting in Bangkok on Wednesday, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN food agency.
The announcement came as Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra faced allegations that his government tried to cover up the outbreak.
The worst-hit country is Vietnam, where six people have now died of avian flu.
AVIAN FLU ALERT
First jumped "species barrier" from bird to human in 1997
In humans, similar symptoms include fever, sore throat, and cough
On Saturday, Vietnamese health officials confirmed that a 13-year-old boy who died in Ho Chi Minh City on Thursday was the country's latest victim of the outbreak.
The WHO said an eight-year-old girl in the same city had tested positive for the virus and was in a critical condition.
Thailand is the only other country where avian flu has crossed from birds to humans. The death of a 56-year-old Bangkok man who raised fighting cocks is thought to have been caused by the virus.
The WHO has warned that the Asian outbreak could mutate and become more dangerous.
The Thai Government has come in for strong criticism for its handling of the crisis, both from political opponents and the media.
The Bangkok Post newspaper accused the authorities of failing to take prompt action against the outbreak.
"The government's effort to sweep the problem under the carpet has exploded in its face, leaving the poultry industry in tatters and the very safety of the public in jeopardy," said an editorial in the paper's Saturday edition.
AVIAN FLU TIMELINE
Nov 2003 - Thailand reports what it calls chicken cholera
15 Dec - S Korea confirms avian flu outbreak
9 Jan 2004 - UN sends help to Vietnam after avian flu outbreak
11 Jan - First of five Vietnamese deaths confirmed as avian flu
13 Jan - Japan confirms avian flu outbreak
15 Jan - Taiwan announces different strain of avian flu
21 Jan - Laos reports suspected chicken cholera
23 Jan - Thailand confirms first human cases of avian flu
23 Jan - Cambodia detects first case in chickens
For their part, opposition politicians are threatening a motion of no confidence.
But Mr Thaksin denied accusations that his government tried to hide the crisis.
"There has been a lot of talk that the government has been trying to cover this up," Mr Thaksin said in his weekly radio address on Saturday.
"That we didn't say anything doesn't mean we weren't working. We've been working very hard."
Thailand's decision to call an emergency summit was welcomed by the European Union's health commissioner, David Byrne, who was visiting Thailand.
Mr Byrne told Reuters news agency the meeting would allow "experts to talk to experts" on how to fight the virus.
Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and South Korea have joined a growing list of countries to ban imports of poultry from Thailand, Asia's main exporter.
Thailand's main poultry buyers, Japan and the EU, had already banned Thai chicken, along with the Philippines, Hong Kong and Bangladesh.
Avian flu has also affected chickens in Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea - but is not known to have jumped from birds to humans in these countries.
I think it is quite interesting as well as scary. I tried to post similar link but it would not work. Infection control is one of the fields that fascinates me.
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