Public Health Experts attending the World Health Assembly say the H5N1 virus in birds is rapidly spreading around the world. The World Health Organization urges nations to speed up their pandemic preparedness plans.

The U.N. agency says there is greater chance now for the H5N1 virus to move into the human population because of the rapid spread of the virus from infected birds.

U.N. Coordinator for Avian and Human Influenza David Nabarro says it is not easy for humans to get infected. But, he warns this virus has the capacity to infect and cause disease in humans. "If this virus also develops the capacity to pass easily between humans then we have got something pretty terrible that is going to happen in our world and we will all need to move very rapidly to close it down. We are in this breathing space before it happens. We do not know how long that breathing space is going to be. But, if we are not all organizing ourselves to get ready and to take action to prepare for a pandemic, then we are squandering an opportunity for our human security," he said.

Latest World Health Organization figures put the known number of humans infected with the H5N1 bird flu virus at 217, with 123 deaths. Most of these cases and deaths have occurred in Asia. But, the disease has spread to Europe and the Middle East.

WHO Coordinator of Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response, Keiji Fukuda, says influenza pandemics occur at least a couple of times each century. "We are in a period in which the risk both elevated and more visible and this is because of the H5N1 virus. And, this is because this virus has the ability to persist and to spread and also to infect people. Now the WHO assessment at this period is that we remain at phase three. This is a period in which we may see examples of limited human-to-human transmission. But, we definitely have not seen sustained human-to-human transmission," he said.

Dr. Fukuda says WHO's early efforts in raising global awareness have been very successful. He notes one and one half years ago, a WHO survey found fewer than 50 countries had pandemic preparedness plans. Now, he says, more than 176 countries have either a draft or a completed national pandemic plan.

Egypt's Minister of Health, Mostafa El-Gabaly describes how even a developing country, with limited resources, can get control of the H5N1 virus if it responds immediately to the threat. He says after Egypt's first reported cases of H5N1 in birds and humans, his government sprang into action. It vaccinated tens of thousands of birds and culled those infected with the disease. "Training at the grassroots level, I think is the most important and most effective way of fighting this disease. Whether training people to cull birds. Whether training people to educate families. Whether training people to protect themselves from the dangers of the disease," he said.

The World Health Organization urges countries to strengthen their early warning systems, build national capacity to cope with a pandemic and strengthen global scientific research in vaccine development.