Bird Flu Alarm

2006-02-27-Niger Finds Bird Flu as Spread of Virus Accelerates

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-02-27-Niger Finds Bird Flu as Spread of Virus Accelerates

Bird flu was found in Niger, the 16th country to confirm an initial outbreak this month, doubling the number of nations reporting infections as scientists warn the virus is becoming more lethal to animals.

Avian influenza was confirmed today as the killer of domestic ducks in the southern Niger town of Magaria, said Maria Zampaglione, a spokeswoman for World Organization for Animal Health. It was also isolated in birds from Dan Barde, she said. Officials are testing possible outbreaks in Kenya and Pakistan.

``We're struggling to try to make sense of it all,'' said John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of London, in a telephone interview. ``It does look like'' it is gaining momentum, ``which is not a good sign.''

Variants of the H5N1 virus have become progressively more lethal over the past eight years in experimentally infected chickens and mice, the World Health Organization said last week. They are also hardier, surviving several days longer in the environment. The disease in birds increases the risk of human infection and creates more opportunity for the virus to mutate into a pandemic form capable of killing millions of people.

At least 93 of the 173 people known to have been infected with the H5N1 strain of bird flu since late 2003 have died, mainly in Asia, the WHO said today. People most at risk of infection are those who come into contact with poultry during slaughtering, plucking feathers or butchering.

Human Cases

At least 15 other countries on three continents have reported initial outbreaks of the virus this month: Iraq, Iran, Bulgaria, Nigeria, Greece, Azerbaijan, Italy, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Egypt, India, France, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

China reported two new human cases of bird flu, bringing to 14 the number of people in the country known to have the virus. The H5N1 strain of the avian influenza virus sickened a 9-year- old girl in Zhejiang province and a 26-year-old farmer in Annhui province, China's Ministry of Health said. People in close contact with them haven't shown symptoms, the government said.

``The virus is endemic in many parts of China, so it's not surprising to see new human cases in the country,'' said Alphaluck Bhatiasevi, the World Health Organization's spokeswoman in China. ``Where there's a poultry infection, there's a likelihood new human cases will occur.''

Chiron Corp., the biotechnology company being acquired by Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG, asked European Union regulators to approve a pandemic influenza vaccine based on a mock drug. It's part of a process that may speed approval during an outbreak of a deadly flu virus, the company said.

Testing Tamiflu

Roche Holding AG is in talks with the WHO about conducting more tests on how well its Tamiflu drug works against the H5N1 virus ``on a broad, ongoing basis,'' Jan van Koeveringe, who heads technical operations at the company's pharmaceutical unit, said today.

Samples collected from two poultry farms in Pakistan's North West Frontier province have shown the presence of the H5 subtype of the virus, Pakistan's health ministry said in a statement today. The samples are being sent to a U.K. laboratory outside London for further testing. As a precaution, the two farms were quarantined, the ministry said.

Kenyan authorities are testing hundreds of dead chickens found dumped in the capital Nairobi for a possible outbreak of avian flu, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a senior veterinary official. About 400 of the fowl were found over the weekend in Nairobi's Kasarani residential district, AFP said.

Spreading Unreported

Bird flu is spreading unreported in parts of Nigeria as farmers, mistrustful of the government's promise of compensation, are reluctant to inform authorities about outbreaks, said Auwalu Haruna, secretary of the Poultry Association of Nigeria.

Officials are culling diseased fowl and healthy flocks on neighboring farms to contain the virus that has spread to at least nine of Nigeria's 36 states since January.

Some farmers aren't disclosing infected birds because killing them would remove their only source of income, Haruna said in a Feb. 25 interview in Kano, northern Nigeria. Others with healthy flocks plan to immunize against the virus after 1 million doses of vaccine arrive from Israel this week, he said.

About 1,000 chickens died in India's northeastern Assam state over the weekend, the Hindustan Times reported, without saying where it obtained the information. Tissue samples were sent by the Assam government for testing, said Upma Chawdhry, joint secretary at the animal husbandry ministry.

The discovery of bird flu in Assam would mean the disease has spread to at least three states in India. More than 250,000 fowl were culled in the western states of Maharashtra and Gujarat earlier this month after bird flu outbreaks were detected.

Understanding Avian Influenza