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Avian Flu Still Spreading, Experts Warn - 2004-02-26

International health experts are warning the bird flu is still spreading, and continues to poses a threat to humans. So far, it has killed more than twenty people.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization opened three-days of emergency talks in Bangkok on Thursday on how best to contain Asia's bird flu epidemic, which has so far affected eleven countries.

FAO spokesman, Diderik de Vleeschauwer says the disease is far from being contained in poultry. "The outbreaks are definitely not over," he says. "So this is very critically important, we hope that here the basis will be laid for short term further strategies for fighting for the disease."

About 100 million birds have already died or been slaughtered in the battle against the disease, which has also infected 32 people and killed more than 20. So far, most of the human cases have been traced back to chickens. But scientists fear bird flu may still have the potential to change into a strain that can be passed from human to human - causing a global pandemic in people.

A World Health Organization official attending Thursday's conference said a new prototype bird flu vaccine for humans could soon begin clinical trials.

Animal health experts remain divided on how to contain the outbreak in poultry. Mass culling was carried out in many affected areas, causing great financial losses for many poultry farms. Experts attending a FAO conference in Rome a month ago recommended that farms with healthy chickens vaccinate their livestock against all bird flu strains.

Mr. de Vleeschauwer says the conference in Bangkok will be taking a critical look at vaccinations. "And now the meeting will be asking from the different countries what difficulties did you encounter in applying vaccination," he says.

The bird flu first crossed into humans in 1997 in Hong Kong - then killing six of the 18 people it infected. But this year the territory, which is part of China but autonomous from the mainland, has avoided a recurrence.

Hong Kong has strict hygiene and rules on importing chickens. Several weeks ago the government banned live chicken imports from mainland China when outbreaks were discovered across the country.

Poultry retailers and distributors went on strike Thursday to protest the government ban, saying it was damaging consumer confidence and crippling their businesses.