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UN Calls for Renewed Vigilance as Bird Flu Outbreaks Increase


Fresh outbreaks of bird flu have triggered a renewed United Nations call for vigilance against the spread of the disease. But as Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, despite the concerns, U.N. officials say the world has made progress in containing bird flu outbreaks over the past three years.

In the past few weeks, new outbreaks of the H5N1 bird flu virus have been found in Japan, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Egypt and Nigeria. On Tuesday, officials with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization called for renewed vigilance against the disease.

Thailand Tuesday confirmed the second outbreak of the H5N1 virus among chickens in the country's northern provinces.

Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam are the countries hit hardest by the virus since it re-emerged in Asia in late 2003. More than 120 of the global total of 163 human deaths have occurred in those three countries.

Governments around the world have countered outbreaks by culling millions of poultry and starting public education campaigns.

At a meeting in Bangkok Tuesday, FAO officials said the efforts are paying off.

"Where the virus is occurring certainly in mainland Southeast Asia I would say that the outbreaks are under control," said Laurence Gleeson, an FAO veterinarian. "If you want to compare that situation with what existed in 2004, I mean, it was a galloping epidemic in 2004, but that's not the situation today."

FAO officials say the latest outbreaks of the virus can be explained in part by slightly cooler weather in much of the region, which is when flu viruses can be most active.

But Juan Lubroth, a senior officer with the FAO's Animal Health Service, says the recent outbreaks still highlight the need for vigilance.

"Recent outbreaks do follow a seasonal pattern and this should not come as any great surprise," said Lubroth. "But we should remain alert as the recent outbreaks show. It is crucial that countries themselves set up surveillance, detection, and rapid response measures."

The FAO's deputy regional director, Hiroyuki Konuma, says only a long-term global commitment will succeed in eradicating the virus.

"It will probably take several years to contain and finally eradicate the H5N1 virus from the poultry sector," said Konuma. "This requires a strong commitment from government, poultry farmers and the international community."

The H5N1 virus is deadly to poultry and can wipe out farmers' entire flocks quickly. But it is difficult for humans to catch - most human victims contracted the virus from sick birds. Scientists, however, fear the virus could mutate and become more contagious among humans, setting off a pandemic.

The FAO officials meeting in Bangkok this week also will focus on improved communications and education programs to raise awareness about the virus, especially in poor rural communities.