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Experts Warn of Possible Bird Flu Outbreak in Humans

U.S. health experts are calling for increased international coordination to detect and respond to possible large scale bird flu outbreaks, and are warning the virus could mutate and be spread by humans.

Tens of millions of birds around the world have been slaughtered or died because of avian influenza, or the bird flu virus. The deadly H5N1 strain of the virus is blamed for the deaths of more than 60 people in East Asia in the last two years.

The dean of Michigan State University's veterinary college, Doctor Lonnie King, told a Washington panel discussion that a bird flu pandemic is possible as long as the virus exists.

"We have pristine populations in animals and people worldwide, billions susceptible, never had exposure to this pathogen in the past and are extremely susceptible," Dr. King says.

He expressed concern that the virus has shown resistance to anti-viral drugs, and that populations in remote areas may not report an outbreak in the agricultural sector because of economic or other reasons.

Michael Osterholm, the director of University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease and Research Policy, warned of the virus changing and being transmitted by humans.

"This virus will eventually have all the right mutational set-up for becoming a human-to-human transmitted pathogen," Mr. Osterholm says. "And all it needs is one time -- it doesn't need to have that happen multiple times."

He also warned that a vaccine would not be available for the first six to eight months after an outbreak, and then only in very limited quantities.

Doctor Alfonso Torres, at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine, said problems exist worldwide in addressing the bird flu virus, including with health infrastructure, research funding, and base monitoring and surveillance of the virus.

"Many countries and even many states in the U.S. do not have proper laws, or if the laws are there, they are not enforced properly," Dr. Torres says. "So we want to establish quarantine procedures, mandatory testing and the like, but many times we cannot do that because there is no enforcement of these regulations."

The panelists warned that practices common in Asia and elsewhere create conditions that can easily spread the bird flu. In many places people are living together with birds, keeping different species in the same environment, and raising them outside where they can come in contact with infected migratory birds.

The panelists called for bio-security measures to keep birds from getting infected and further spreading the virus. They also urged the monitoring of humans and animals for early detection of possible outbreaks, and the strengthening of infrastructure.