Bird Flu Alarm

2006-01-12-UN highlights bird flu pandemic threat

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-01-12-UN highlights bird flu pandemic threat

ANKARA (Reuters) - The threat of a bird flu pandemic is growing daily, a top World Health Organization (WHO) official said on Thursday, as Turkey reported more cases of people infected with the deadly virus.

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Shigeru Omi, the WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific, said Asia remained the epicenter of the threat to global health but that a pandemic was not inevitable if countries and health bodies responded quickly.

"As the new cases of human infection with the H5N1 virus in Turkey show, the situation is worsening with each passing month and the threat of an influenza pandemic is continuing to grow every day," he told a two-day meeting of Asian countries and international organizations on bird flu in Tokyo.

Experts say the H5N1 virus could become more active in the colder months in affected regions, and spread in east Asia as people slaughter chickens for Lunar New Year celebrations.

The more it becomes entrenched in poultry flocks, the greater the risk that more humans will become infected. So far, the virus is reported to have infected about 150 people, killing at least 78 in six countries.

While it remains essentially a disease in birds, scientists fear the virus could mutate into a form that could spread easily between humans, causing a pandemic in which millions could die.

While there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission in Turkey, the large and rapid rise in the number of cases has worried experts.

The H5N1 virus has been found in wild birds and poultry across large parts of Turkey, particularly in poor villages stretching from Istanbul at the gates of Europe to Van near the Iranian and Iraqi borders. It has killed at least two children.

Tests have shown that the virus was in the lungs of a third Turkish child who died last week, the sister of the two dead teenagers confirmed as bird flu victims, the state Anatolian news agency said on Thursday.

Turkey's NTV television said a total of 18 people had now been confirmed as infected with the virus, including those who had died. Turkey had previously confirmed 15 cases.

TURKISH CASES STUDIED

Health experts are studying the outbreak in Turkey for clues as to how to combat the virus. The mortality rate in Turkey is lower than in east Asia where around one in every two victims has died.

"The pace of fatalities appears to have fallen off quickly. But it is as yet unclear whether this is because the virus has modified or Turkey's approach has been successful," said David Nabarro, the UN's senior coordinator for avian influenza.

He said the virus appeared to be spreading via wild birds.

"It does look as though it is the work of migrating birds. But once in an area, it spreads locally," he said.

The WHO says countries must do more to prepare for a pandemic and Nabarro said it would cost donors about $1.4 billion to finance the next phase of the global campaign against the virus. This included gearing up veterinary services and preparing expert teams for quick deployment to outbreaks.

He was confident delegates to a bird flu conference in Beijing next week would pledge the needed amount.

The virus has rapidly infected birds across Turkey, including Ankara, Istanbul and the tourism region near the Aegean coast. Authorities have killed more than 350,000 birds in the past two weeks.

FIGHTING THE VIRUS

The authorities have been criticized for dropping their guard after bird flu first appeared in October.

Turkish Agriculture Minister Hehdi Eker said there were no plans for a mass vaccination of poultry. Health officials in protective suits were going from house to house to search for infected birds and disinfect houses.

A 3-km (2-mile) quarantine zone had been set up around infected areas, vans fitted with loudspeakers were sent out and television broadcasters ran advertisements on measures to be taken.

"We take the battle very seriously. It's ongoing," Eker said, adding that most of the infected chickens had been found in poor villages and often in peoples' backyards. "Children are most at risk. We call on parents to play a bigger role."

Understanding Avian Influenza