Bird flu spreads to China

There are fears that the so-called “bird flu” in Asia could unleash a pandemic.

BY PJ HELLER | BALTIMORE | January 28, 2004

"This is a serious global threat to human health."

—Dr. Lee Jong-Wook, head of the World Health Organization

With fears that the so-called “bird flu” in Asia could unleash a human and animal pandemic, health officials met in emergency session Wednesday to try to find ways of halting the spread of the virus before it reaches global proportions.

“This is a serious global threat to human health,” said Dr. Lee Jong-Wook, head of the World Health Organization (WHO). “We must begin this hard, costly work now.”

The avian influenza, believed responsible for at least 10 deaths, has been reported in 10 Asian counties. The latest outbreak was reported Tuesday on a farm in southern China, about 60 miles from Vietnam. Authorities sealed the area around the farm and slaughtered some 14,000 birds in the area, according to China’s Xinhua news agency. It said the government had the situation under control.

Chinese officials said the lethal strain of H5N1 bird flu found in ducks at the farm had not spread to humans. Two other provinces have reported suspected cases of the virus.

China, where Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome was first discovered, has a major poultry industry and chicken is a major food source for the population. Chinese officials said they have banned the import and export of poultry products from all regions affected by the epidemic.

In addition to China, the deadly bird flu has been confirmed in Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Officials from WHO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Organization for Animal Health appealed in a joint statement for funds and technical assistance to eliminate the threat of a human and animal pandemic.

“We have a brief window of opportunity before us to eliminate that threat,” said Dr. Jacques Diouf, director-general of FAO.

Speaking at the opening of the emergency meeting here, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called for prompt action.

“To contain a fast-spreading virus, countries need to respond promptly, act with transparency, obtain reliable scientific data and share information and experiences with one another,” he said.

Lee of the World Health Organization had expressed similar sentiments in the joint statement.

“With SARS, we learned that only by working together can we control emerging global public health threats,” he said. “Now, we confront another threat to human health and we must reaffirm existing collaboration and form new ones.”

Lee noted that the health organizations have faced other emerging infectious diseases in the past.

“This time, we face something we can possibly control before it reaches global proportions if we work cooperatively and share needed resources,” he said.

Officials said they have seen no sign of any human-to-human transmission of the virus. The virus appears to be transmitted to humans who come in contact with the diseased birds.

Health officials, however, expressed fears that the avian flu could combine with human influenza to create a new deadly strain which could be transmitted from person-to-person.

In addition to the health threat, officials said the cost to poorer nations and farmers who need to kill tens of millions of infected

and exposed animals would be staggering.

“The international community has a stake in the success of these efforts and poorer nations will need help,” Diouf said.

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