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UN Investigator says North Korea's Bird Flu Is Not H5N1 Strain


A Food and Agriculture Organization expert says the bird flu found in North Korea is not the same virus that has killed dozens of people in Asia. However, he says more work must be done to determine how contagious the North Korean virus is, and how it reached the country in the first place.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization reports that birds on some North Korean poultry farms were infected with the H7 flu virus. FAO virus expert Hans Wagner says he found no evidence of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, which is very dangerous to humans, during his visit this week to North Korea.

Speaking from Beijing, Mr. Wagner said Tuesday more tests are needed to fully identify the virus and determine how contagious it is to poultry.

Mr. Wagner says this is the first time the H7 virus has been encountered in East Asia, although it was found last year in Pakistan. He says an FAO team will remain in North Korea to find how the strain reached the country.

Mr. Wagner says authorities in North Korea cooperated with his investigation. "We had good discussions," he said. "We had access to the laboratories, they had provided the samples, they have sampled the flock - it looks good."

Officials in the isolated country confirmed last month the country had found bird flu at several farms near Pyongyang.

Pyongyang says thousands of birds have been slaughtered and burned to curb the spread of virus. Mr. Wagner says what he saw indicates the infected birds have been properly disposed of.

"I visited the farm where the first outbreak occurred, which has been completely depopulated," said Mr. Wagner. "I was shown the site where the animals were buried, and everything looked correct."

There have been concerns that North Koreans may have tried to remove infected chickens from disposal sites, to cook and eat them. The Stalinist country has experienced severe food shortages since the mid-1990s.

There are many different types of bird flu, but only a few are known to have directly infected humans. A variation of the H7 strain is one of them; the World Health Organization says that the H7N7 virus killed one person and made about 80 others mildly ill in Europe two years ago.

Scientists, however, are greatly concerned about the H5N1 strain, which has killed nearly 50 people in Southeast Asia since late 2003. Most, if not all of them are believed to have caught the illness from infected birds. Researchers fear the virus could mutate into a form that could spread easily from human to human, sparking a global pandemic.

Mr. Wagner says so far there are no signs of human bird flu infections in North Korea, but he warns the country must remain vigilant.