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Pacific Health Officials Confront Avian Flu Fears

The World Health Organization says the threat of avian flu is as serious as ever. Members of the WHO's western Pacific region are in South Korea to discuss ways to combat bird flu. VOA's Kurt Achin is at the meeting in Jeju, South Korea, and reports that many countries do not have the minimum systems in place to deal with an outbreak.

World Health Organization Director for Communicable Diseases Tee Ahsian gave delegates a grim status report on avian flu.

"In the western Pacific region, the avian influenza situation remains serious and the human influenza pandemic threat shows no sign of abating," Ahsian said. "... The virus has become formally entrenched in many parts of Asia and much capacity-building work to address the challenges lies ahead."

WHO members are addressing avian flu among a host of other health concerns during their week-long meeting in Jeju, South Korea.

During this season, migratory birds criss-cross Asia, spreading a highly contagious and lethal form of flu known as H5N1 - which is transmissible to humans. Since the most recent outbreak appeared in Asia in 2003, the virus has killed about 200 people.

Most of the human cases were contracted through contact with sick birds or their feces. But there have been documented cases of human-to-human transmission - which is what has scientists worried.

Doctors warn the H5N1 virus is dangerously close to mutating so that is would pass easily between humans - which could spark a global pandemic that could kill millions of people worldwide.

Officials are working on a regional system for early detection but note that there are even bigger challenges. New Zealand Health Minister Pete Hodgson says infrastructure issues will be critical.

"If you have got a very well planned health system and your communications system falls over, or your electricity system falls over, or your finance system falls over, or cops do not turn up out of their barracks when they need to - then more people will die, basically," Hodgson said.

WHO guidelines on responding to a bird flu epidemic call for quarantine and distribution the drug Tamiflu. But WHO spokesman, Peter Cordingley, says the world is still not prepared.

"There will never, ever, ever be enough Tamiflu if there's a pandemic ... so, all countries know they have to have their own priorities about who will get it in a pandemic situation, and there is going to have to be some tough decisions," Cordingley said.

This year the World Health Organization adopted legal guidelines for members to respond to public health threats - including flu pandemic. Members have until 2010 to implement regulations.