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WHO Requests Bird Flu Samples in Search for Source of Asian Outbreak - 2004-07-10

The World Health Organization is urging countries with outbreaks of avian flu to immediately send tissue samples for testing. The WHO says Asian governments appear to be responding quickly to the new outbreak of the virus, which killed more than 20 people early this year.

As Thailand confirms two more outbreaks of the H5N1 bird flu virus in poultry farms, the World Health Organization is pushing to find the source of the infection. The virus has been found in Thailand and China in the past few weeks.

WHO Asia Director Dr. Shigeru Omi is calling for all nations with outbreaks to immediately send tissue samples from infected birds to international laboratories for testing.

Manilla WHO Spokesman Peter Cordingley says the U.N. agency wants the samples to determine what strain of the virus is causing the new outbreaks, and to see if it is the same strain that caused a massive outbreak across much of Asia early this year.

"Now we do not know whether what is going on now is a continuation of what was happening then, you know, just bubbling on out in the countryside, or whether these are new outbreaks involving a new strain of H5N," he said. "But it is quite clear, whatever is going on now, that this virus has not gone away." At least 24 people died early this year from H5N1. Almost all the victims had contracted the disease from infected poultry.

The virus swept through much of Asia and appeared in some parts of the United States and Canada. Millions of chickens, ducks, and geese were slaughtered to stem the spread, causing massive economic losses, particularly in Thailand, one of the world's biggest poultry exporters.

The disease first crossed to humans in Hong Kong seven years ago. Almost all the victims have gotten the disease from birds, but scientists around the world are afraid the virus soon could combine with human influenza viruses, creating a new, very deadly strain.

As a result, Mr. Cordingley says, the WHO is stocking up one of the few effective flu drugs available - Tamiflu - and suggests that governments do the same.