Asian bird flu breaks out again, threatens human health

BANGKOK, Thailand, August 5, 2004 (ENS): A veterinary network for Southeast Asia has been launched to bolster the campaign against renewed outbreaks of avian influenza, according to United Nations animal health officials. Two similar networks for South and East Asia will be formed shortly.

After a period of quiescence in Southeast Asia, outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza of the A/H5N1 strain are again being reported in chickens and ducks in China, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

"The outbreaks in birds pose a significant threat to human health," the World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Friday.

"The risk of emergence of a new human pandemic virus will remain as long as the avian influenza virus exists in the environment," WHO said. "Without significant increase in control efforts at national and international levels, it may be years before the virus is eradicated."

In Thailand, new avian flu outbreaks have been reported in 21 of 76 provinces; and in Vietnam outbreaks were reported in the northern, central and southern parts of the country.

These outbreaks, many without apparent epidemiological links to each other, suggest A/H5N1 is now widely prevalent and is very likely to have become endemic.

This viral strain caused more than 100 million birds to be destroyed across Asia earlier this year; 23 people died as a result.

In association with the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and WHO, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched the first veterinary network for Southeast Asia at a three day regional meeting of veterinary officers and laboratory experts that ended Friday in Bangkok.

The FAO said it will provide around $1.2 million for the creation of these subregional veterinary networks.

"Avian influenza, which continues to pose a serious threat to human and animal health requires rapid and effective national and regional responses. While individual countries have made some progress, only regional cooperation is likely to achieve success,"said Joseph Domenech, chief of the FAO Animal Health Service.

"National borders cannot stop the disease from spreading," he said.

The veterinary networks will offer training and information exchange platforms for national laboratories and surveillance teams from 23 Asian countries.

The Southeast Asia network will cover Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Thailand, East Timor and Vietnam.

The network for South Asia will include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

In East Asia, China, Japan, Mongolia and both North and South Korea will participate.

"Our aim is to improve the quality of diagnosis and epidemiological data," Domenech said. "This will help countries to judge the effectiveness of their control campaigns, identify weaknesses or share success stories. Therefore, the region will be in a much better position to respond to the avian influenza threat," he said.

The World Health Organization says this virus "has the potential to ignite a global influenza pandemic in humans."

In a number of these outbreaks since the beginning of 2004, the virus has jumped from infected chickens or ducks directly to humans, WHO pointed out. These direct human infections have produced severe and sometimes fatal outcomes.

"WHO's continuing concern is that this virus may reassort its genes with those from a human influenza virus, thereby acquiring the ability to move easily from human to human and thus triggering a pandemic," the agency said.

Although there have been several informal reports of human illnesses in connection with the latest outbreaks of avian influenza, WHO says it has no confirmation of these cases.

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