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Experts Hold Urgent Meeting to Develop Strategy to Combat Bird Flu - 2004-02-04

International experts are holding an urgent meeting in Rome to discuss the bird flu outbreak in Asia that has claimed 15 lives in Vietnam and Thailand.

International health and animal experts are meeting behind closed doors, to develop a coordinated strategy to respond to the bird flu in Asia. The two-day meeting is being held at the headquarters of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome.

Joseph Domenech, chief of the Animal Health Service at FAO, says the urgent gathering must reach a consensus on measures that go beyond just killing the birds, including vaccination.

"The veterinary, the animal, outbreaks are multiplying," said Mr. Domenech. "It is still an increasing curve. So, if it continues that way, the risks are still more and more important."

Specialists are attempting to understand how avian influenza, or bird flu, spreads and how it is being transmitted from animals to humans.

Experts say they are concerned that the more sick animals are in contact with human beings, the higher the chances of humans contracting the disease.

Cases of bird flu in humans have been reported only in Vietnam and Thailand, but experts fear these could spread to other Asian countries and elsewhere.

"Up to now, fortunately, the number of people being affected is still small," continued Mr. Domenech. "But the risk is, as you know, that it becomes more important, and that the two viruses, the human one and the avian one will re-combine, will re-absorb their genomes, and bring a new strain, which becomes very pathogenic and very contagious for humans."

Ten countries in Asia are battling the bird flu, and millions of chickens have been slaughtered in efforts to contain the disease. Experts are expected to call for more transparency in the reporting of developments in the disease and greater coordination between affected countries and international agencies.