Bird Flu: Cause for Alarm?

The bird flu has not spread as widely as had been feared, but health officials say the potential risks the virus poses merit ruffling more than a few feathers.

David Nabarro, the newly appointed United Nations avian influenza czar said that the world is long overdue for a flu outbreak. "It would be extremely wrong to be ignoring this threat," Nabarro said at a news conference in New York today.

He laid out the United Nations' three-part strategy, including prevention, preparedness and appropriate response, stressing that governments must work together to contain the potential risk to a flu pandemic.

Separately, animal health experts urged Southeast Asian countries to help raise money and endorse a global plan to curb avian flu, which has killed at least 65 people.

The World Organization for Animal Health, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization are planning a bird flu conference in December to try to raise the $102 million they say is needed to contain the virus.

Officials at an international conference held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in early July, declared that the bird flu poses a problem, especially in Asia, and that ridding it from the world will not be easy.

An investigation in Vietnam revealed that, despite concerns of a massive outbreak, the virus had not mutated or spread significantly among humans, said Joseph Domenech, chief veterinary officer for the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization.

As a result there was no need to raise the level of widespread alert in Asia, he said. His calming words, however, were followed by calls for international action.

"The virus continues to circulate in poultry and wild birds and requires highest attention," he said during the conference, which was jointly organized by FAO, WHO and the animal health organization.

Domenech added that many questions remain unanswered and money needs to be invested to control any further outbreaks.

Asian Problem?

The killer avian influenza, also known as bird flu, broke out in eight Asian countries late in 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam all reported infected poultry.

In late June 2004, lethal outbreaks of infection among poultry broke out again, including in China and Malaysia. The following March, North Korea reported its first outbreak of bird flu. More than 140 million birds have died from the disease or have been killed to prevent further spread.

In August of this year, bird flu spread to Russia and Kazakhstan, causing world health officials to issue their strongest warning yet about the global threat posed by bird flu. Russian doctors suspect that migratory birds brought the virus to Siberia.

Humans have not gone unaffected.

Sporadic human cases of the bird flu, identified as H5N1, started popping up in Southeast Asia.

The human cases of avian influenza A in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia have resulted in at least 65 deaths.

Airborne Danger

Bird flu was believed to infect birds only until 1997 when the first human cases were seen in Hong Kong. Humans contract the disease through close contact with live infected birds. The virus is particularly dangerous because it's an airborne disease that acts swiftly. Birds that survive infection excrete the virus for at least 10 days, orally and through their feces.

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