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Vietnam Not Equipped for Bird Flu Outbreak

The World Health Organization says Vietnam lacks the resources needed to contain a bird flu outbreak that has already killed at least three people there and sickened millions of chickens in Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. In Hong Kong, tests are being carried out on samples taken from people who died mysteriously in Vietnam.

Experts from the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization will help Vietnam with the sudden outbreak of bird flu, which has already struck hundreds of thousands of chickens in Hanoi.

Another United Nations agency, the World Health Organization, says the flu, which is caused by the H5N1 virus, has killed at least three people in Vietnam. That is the same virus that first jumped from chickens to humans in Hong Kong in 1997.

Peter Cordingly, regional spokesman for the WHO, says U.N. experts will advise Vietnam on how to contain the disease's spread.

"We are talking here of millions of chickens being affected," said Mr. Cordingly. "Vietnam doesn't have the infrastructure to handle this kind of problem.… Quite clearly, international help is needed in this case. It's needed in terms of the outbreak among poultry and in terms of the human cases in Hanoi."

Vietnam on Wednesday announced two more suspected cases of bird flu in humans, bringing the total to 16. Tests carried out in Hong Kong confirmed Tuesday that three of the 16 had been killed by the bird flu.

The WHO is also warning that a bird flu virus could become more virulent if it combines with an ordinary human influenza virus. "We have almost no defenses against H5N1," stressed the WHO's Peter Cordingly. "If it crosses over into humans and spreads from human to human, we would have a worldwide problem."

The bird flu is also moving rapidly through poultry populations in South Korea and Japan, but Mr. Cordingly says that so far, it does not appear to be moving from human to human.

The outbreak of chicken flu is occurring as health experts are on high alert for another possible outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. So far, one SARS case has been detected in Southern China, and there are many more suspected cases there.

Last year SARS infected more than 8,000 people worldwide, most of them in China and Hong Kong. But travel warnings and fear of the disease devastated the tourism and airline sectors throughout the region.