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WHO Scales Up Preparations for Bird Flu Pandemic

The World Health Organization says it is expanding its operations to prepare for more outbreaks of the bird-flu virus in poultry and in humans in the coming year. The UN health agency remains on the alert for signs that the virus has mutated into a form that could spread from human to human.

Judging from recent events, the World Health Organization says it expects to be very busy this year keeping up with new, possibly more frequent outbreaks of avian influenza in poultry and humans.

It notes the New Year was ushered in with the first cases of bird flu in Turkey and Iraq, giving a worrisome new dimension to the movement of this illness. Until then, all previous cases of H5N1virus in humans occurred in Asia. The outbreak in Turkey marked the first time the disease had reached Europe.

In an effort to prevent the disease from getting out of control, WHO Assistant Director-General of Communicable Diseases Margaret Chan says WHO has sent teams of human and animal health experts to nine countries in the area surrounding Turkey.

"We are providing a field assessment and we look at the country's pandemic preparedness plan and we discuss with the country in what way it can prepare and respond to avian influenza outbreak should that happen in their country," said Margaret Chan.

The WHO teams are going to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Georgia, Iran, Lebanon, Moldova, Syria and Ukraine. Many are poor nations that have inadequate surveillance systems.

Turkey has reported 21 cases of human bird flu, including 12 deaths. In Iraq, a 15 year-old girl died of the H5N1 virus. Two other cases are yet to be confirmed. Globally, WHO reports 161 cases and 86 deaths, most of them in Asian countries.

Dr. Chan says WHO is increasing its staff and expanding its activities. She says a senior scientist will work closely with pharmaceutical companies to spearhead research and development of an influenza pandemic vaccine.

Over the next two years, she says WHO will help its 192 member states strengthen their pandemic preparedness plans. This will involve training people in epidemiology and laboratory diagnosis. Another priority she says is to help nations strengthen their animal and human disease surveillance systems and to help nations contain the early stages of a pandemic, should that happen.

"We expect to continue to see outbreaks in poultry and we would continue to see sporadic human cases," she said. "And that underlines the very strong message that this is still pretty much an animal disease. It is a rare disease in humans. Only in situations where there is exposure and contact with infected birds would human beings be exposed to the risk of getting the infection."

Scientists warn of an avian flu pandemic that could kill millions of people if the H5N1 virus in birds changes into a form that could spread easily from one human to another. Until now, relatively few people have become ill and, in some cases, have died. All had close, unprotected contact with infected birds.