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Southeast Asia Works to Step Up Cooperation to Combat Bird Flu - 2004-07-28


Officials and scientists from around Southeast Asia are calling for more regional cooperation in battling outbreaks of bird flu. At a meeting in Bangkok, the Thai government has offered to act as a regional center for tracking the virus.

Experts from 10 Asian and Pacific nations as well as representatives from the United Nations gathered in Bangkok Wednesday to formulate strategies on fighting bird flu.

A particularly lethal strain, H5N1, swept across the region early this year, forcing governments to kill millions of chickens, ducks and geese. At least 24 people died from the disease, which they contracted from infected birds - 16 of the victims were in Vietnam and eight were in Thailand.

In recent weeks, the virus has re-emerged in poultry flocks Thailand, Vietnam, China and Indonesia. So far, however, health officials have not found any human cases.

Hans Wagner, a senior animal health officer with the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, says more work is needed to contain the threat.

"As long as the virus is circulating there is a threat to the poultry industry and there is a threat of the virus jumping over to humans," he said.

Thailand, which saw its large poultry industry devastated by the flu, offered Wednesday to act as a regional center for diagnosing bird flu and tracking outbreaks.

Many scientists fear that the H5N1 virus, if not contained, could eventually change so that it can easily spread among humans, leading to a deadly flu pandemic.

The World Health Organization says it is on track to develop a human vaccine against H5N1, with supplies of a prototype already forwarded to pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Roy Wadia, a WHO spokesman, says that while human trials are still needed, the prototype marks a major step in dealing with the virus.

"The fact that we had a prototype is something pretty significant because this is such a highly pathogenic virus that to actually create the prototype that could be used for human vaccine in itself is quite a feat," he explained.

The next step, Mr. Wadia says, will be human trials, which could take up to six months.

This week's meeting hopes to set in place measures aimed at preventing another outbreak in the region, as well as greater cooperation among health officials and the scientific community.

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