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WHO Confirms Bird Flu Virus Caused Human Deaths in Vietnam - 2004-01-13

The World Health Organization has confirmed that at least three people have died of bird flu in Vietnam, the same virus that first emerged in Hong Kong in 1997 and killed six people. Hundreds of thousands of chickens have been infected by the disease in Vietnam, South Korea and Japan.

Tests carried out in Hong Kong confirmed Tuesday that a woman and two children in Vietnam were killed by a strain of bird flu.

The World Health Organization says the virus, H5-N1, is the same one that suddenly jumped from chickens to humans in 1997, killing six of the 13 people it infected in Hong Kong.

Peter Cordingly, regional spokesman for the WHO, says the latest human victims probably caught the disease directly from sick chickens. "There's no evidence yet of human-to-human transmission, the poultry is likely to be the common element here rather than the virus being passed between members of the family," he says. "Humans are very susceptible to this disease."

Samples from three other Vietnamese children who died mysteriously over the past four months are still being tested. But the WHO says Vietnam health authorities have detected at least 14 possible cases. Most of them have died.

Hundreds of thousands of chickens have been infected in Vietnam, and the government has asked the U.N. agency to help it contain the disease. About a 100,000 chickens have been culled there to prevent the virus from spreading.

In South Korea, over a million chickens have either died from the flu or been culled. Japan on Monday reported its first outbreak of H5-N1, with about 6,000 chickens infected. Officials in Thailand say a form of bird cholera is killing chickens at some poultry farms there, but denied there has been a bird flu outbreak.

When the link between sick chickens and the H5-N1 virus in humans was discovered in Hong Kong in 1997, the government ordered all chickens in the city killed. They also suspended imports of birds from mainland China. The measures apparently contained the disease then.

Bird flu has sporadically reappeared and killed chickens in Hong Kong and southern China for years. Two people were infected in China last year and died after seeking treatment in Hong Kong.

The WHO says H5-N1 is a fast-moving influenza virus, which can be deadly just hours after infecting a person.

This latest health scare comes as the region is bracing for a possible outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. At least one person in southern China is confirmed to have SARS recently - the first case in China since July, but there are a few other suspected cases.