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Health and Food Groups Warn: Bird Flu Poses Global Health Threat - 2004-01-27

Three international health and agricultural safety agencies warn the outbreak of bird flu in Asia poses a serious global threat to humans. The World Health Organization, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health are appealing for international financial and technical assistance to combat this deadly virus.

In a joint statement, the three agencies warn the so-called bird flu could evolve into an efficient and dangerous human infection. Getting it under control, they say, presents a significant challenge.

The directors of the agencies say there is only a brief window of opportunity to eliminate the threat. They note the first step in getting this deadly disease under control is for farmers in affected areas to urgently kill infected and exposed animals.

The agencies say people involved in killing the birds should wear protective masks, gloves and clothing, and should be vaccinated against human influenza. They are also appealing to the international community to compensate the farmers for their losses.

A World Health Organization spokeswoman, Fadela Chaib, says the agencies do not know how much money will be needed because the avian influenza virus is continuing to spread. She said millions of chickens have already been killed. And she said it is likely that many more millions will have to be destroyed before the disease is contained.

She said this will represent a huge cost to small-scale farmers in Asia, most of whom are struggling to make a living.

"We anticipate that countries will ask WHO, or through other channels, to help their farmers who are losing everything," she said. "What is important also is to help these countries with technical assistance. I mean diagnosis tests, some lab equipment and also, not only what is technical, but also to help with people who are working in this area, etc."

The World Health Organization reports the avian influenza, known as bird flu, epidemic has spread to nine Asian countries in the past few weeks.

WHO experts say they do not know how the virus is transmitted from poultry to humans, but they believe the germs travel through the air. They say, eating well-cooked meat from an infected bird does not cause the disease.

The experts say the virus is not being transmitted human to human. But they warn there is a growing risk that the longer the bird flu virus circulates, the more likely it is to mutate, and make human to human transmission of the disease possible.

Scientists are working on a vaccine against bird flu. The World Health Organization is hosting a conference with manufacturers, researchers and laboratory experts to take stock of the progress being made. The agency says it believes it will take at least six months to produce an effective vaccine.