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Bird Flu Still Seen as Problem Despite Better Controls


Health and veterinary experts have singled out Indonesia, Egypt and Nigeria as countries where the risk of bird flu contagion is particularly worrisome. Gathered at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome to take stock of efforts to contain the deadly form of bird flu, experts said important improvements have been made in some places, but there is no room for complacency. Sabina Castelfranco reports for the VOA from Rome.

Experts gathered in Rome for a three-day technical meeting on avian influenza and human infection with the deadly H5N1 strain of the flu. They said bird flu is still an important and worrying problem, and a potential human influenza pandemic cannot be ruled out as long as the virus exists in poultry.

FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech said important results have been achieved in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. He said that in places where the H5N1 virus was introduced during the past six months, it was rapidly detected and eliminated or controlled.

But he warned that, although the response to the deadly H5N1 virus in poultry has significantly improved over the past three years, the virus remains entrenched in several countries and will continue to spread.

"We have particularly three very worrying situations which are first of all Indonesia, and then Egypt and then far from these previous two Nigeria, so still a risk of human pandemic and poultry sector impacts," he said.

So far, there is no evidence that the deadly strain of the virus has been transmitted from person to person. But experts fear that if the H5N1 virus mutates it could become easily transmitted among humans, triggering a global pandemic.

Domenech said Indonesia faces the most serious problems because of the number of people in direct contact with the virus and because there are a large number of outbreaks. The country has more than 13,000 live poultry markets where humans come into contact with birds grown for market and where birds from different places are exposed to each other, raising the danger of transmission.

"Indonesia is for sure the country where the investment attention has to be put because this is where the situation is of high risk of getting a new virus at the origin of human pandemic, as it was in China, Vietnam and Thailand three years ago," he added.

The FAO experts said efficient veterinary services and improved private/public partnership for better surveillance and control are indispensable.

Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has infected 310 people. A total of 190 have died of the disease. Some 250 million poultry have been destroyed, or have died from bird flu. Over the past two years, the international community has pledged more than $2.4 billion to deal with avian influenza.

Researchers are working on a vaccine to prevent the deadly form of the disease.