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Scientists Say Bird Flu Spreading in Several Asian, African Countries

Nations in Asia and Africa have had much success in stopping the spread of bird flu, but experts meeting in Bangkok this week say the H5N1 virus continues to spread in a number of countries. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok.

Experts with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization say bird flu is still considered an animal disease, affecting only a small number of humans so far. But they say the threat of a human pandemic, in which millions could die, is still very real.

Dr. David Nabarro, the United Nations' senior Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza, told reporters in Bangkok Wednesday that while most nations have made progress in containing the virus' spread, there remain some problem areas.

"We've seen during the last three years that countries have invested a lot of resources in vaccination of poultry, in improving veterinary services, and also in what we call bio-security, in order to try to reduce the risk of...avian influenza continuing to circulate in poultry or in wild birds," he said. "We've seen in many countries, extraordinary success in getting this under control: (but) not everywhere. There's some problems in the region."

He says the virus continues to spread in Bangladesh, Indonesia and Vietnam in Asia, and Egypt and Nigeria in Africa.

Experts say nations that have yet to develop an export-oriented poultry industry are finding it more difficult to contain the disease.

They say Thailand, as one example, has had greater success in controlling bird flu, because it already had a veterinary system in place to support its sizable poultry exports.

Another challenge that could hinder efforts to contain the spread of H5N1 is the reluctance by some countries to hand over tissue samples of bird flu cases. China is one of them. Dr. Nabarro says negotiations continue in efforts to get Beijing to disclose more data and materials that could help scientists develop a vaccine.

"There are some situations in which countries have asked for clarification on the benefits that they're likely to get as a result of sharing samples, and there is some international negotiation under way at the moment to try to establish a satisfactory basis for sample-sharing by seeing whether or not it will be possible to ensure that those who do provide samples are able to benefit from products that are produced with the help of those samples," he said.

Experts say Beijing's concerns have to do with intellectual property rights to any vaccine that is developed with data or research originating in China. Indonesia has hesitated to supply tissue samples for similar reasons.

Representatives of several nations are scheduled to meet in Geneva later this month to address those concerns and talk about setting up a new international standard of sharing information and samples.

The H5N1 strain of the avian influenza virus mainly affects birds and has struck primarily in Asia, but it has also appeared in Europe and Africa. Since its appearance in Hong Kong in 1997, the H5N1 virus has killed at least 211 people in eleven countries. Tens of millions of poultry have died or been slaughtered due to the disease.

The World Health Organization says all evidence to date indicates that close contact with dead or sick birds is the principal source of human infection. Scientists say they are mainly concerned about the virus in animals for now, but fear that the virus could mutate and become easily transmissible between humans.