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WHO Urges Health Workers in Bird Flu Zones to Protect Themselves - 2004-01-30

International health experts are warning that health workers in areas infected with the bird flu virus could increase the risk of human infections if they do not wear protective clothing. The warnings come as Asian governments continue the battle to contain the outbreak that has killed 10 people, eight in Vietnam and two in Thailand.

A spokesman for the World Health Organization urged workers culling flocks of chickens in bird flu zones to wear masks, gloves and protective clothing. He said otherwise they risk becoming infected with bird flu themselves, and increase the risk of the virus changing into a strain more deadly to humans.

The warning came as thousands of workers in 10 Asian nations with confirmed bird flu cases continue the cull that has killed tens of millions of chickens, ducks and other fowl in the past few weeks.

Ten people have died from the disease after coming into contact with infected birds. Health experts say if the virus begins moving from person to person, it could become more dangerous than last year's outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed nearly 800 people worldwide.

A spokesman for the WHO in Thailand, John Rainford, says scientists are still struggling to deal with the bird flu outbreak, because it has spread so quickly across such a broad area.

"I think we're still trying to understand exactly what's happening on the ground," he said. "There's a lot unknown as to what is happening. It's a massive operation as you can imagine and we're all struggling to make sure that we have a clear sense of it."

Thailand Friday announced that four more people in the country were suspected of having the virus. The government also said bird flu had been found in the southern province of Pang Nga, the first case to be found in the south. This brings to 30, or nearly one-half, the number of Thai provinces where the disease has appeared.

At the same time, Thai officials declared two provinces that were the first and hardest-hit by the virus to be clean, and placed them under surveillance. Officials said they hoped the nationwide cull of birds would be finished in a few days.

China, which had already reported cases of bird flu in the southern province of Guangxi, on Friday announced that new cases have been confirmed in Hunan and Hubei Provinces, and suspected cases have turned up in three other regions.

Indonesia, under pressure from international health organizations, expanded its bird cull to include all chickens within a three kilometer radius of an infected area, an operation it said would cost nearly $1 billion.

The Indonesian government earlier announced a limited cull, citing economic hardship.

Malaysia, which to date has reported no cases of bird flu, said the threat of an outbreak there was high, and the government pledged not to hide anything from the public.