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Global health officials urge action to prevent bird flu pandemic

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam—The world's nations need to spend up to $300 million a year to contain the spread of bird flu so it doesn't cause a pandemic that could kill millions of people, global health officials warned Friday.

The global response to outbreaks of bird flu in Asia over the past year has fallen far short given the threat it could pose to human health, they said.

Since the problem first arose in Southeast Asia last year, bird flu has killed 45 people in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. A new case of human infection was reported in northern Vietnam on Friday.

So far, health officials think that nearly all the people who have died from the disease became sick after having contact with infected poultry. There's no evidence to suggest that H5N1, the type of bird virus that's causing human disease in Asia, has developed the ability to spread easily from person to person.

But over time, health officials say, the virus could mutate so that efficient human transmission occurs, causing a global pandemic that could kill millions. There's no way to predict when that might happen or how many people could die, but experts take the possibility seriously.

"The longer the virus circulates in poultry, the higher the probability of exposure in humans," said Samuel Jutzi of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Association.

In many parts of rural Asia, ducks and chickens live close to the farmers who raise them. In Vietnam, for example, it's not unusual to see chickens wandering in and out of houses.

Vietnam is the country hit hardest by the disease. Thirteen people have died since Dec. 30.

Jutzi, speaking at a conference on bird flu that ended Friday in Ho Chi Minh City, said the international response had been disappointing so far.

Health officials said that was especially troublesome because of the threat of the deadly disease spreading around the world.

"The world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic," said Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organization's top Asia-Pacific official.

The last global flu pandemic occurred nearly 40 years ago, Omi said, and historically they usually occur once every two or three decades. The H5N1 virus has become entrenched in many parts of Asia and has become versatile and highly lethal.

When chickens get the disease, it's generally easy to see that they're sick. But researchers discovered recently that the virus can be transmitted by ducks that don't appear to be ill.

"How can people avoid exposure to a virus when they don't know which ducks are infected and which ones are not?" Omi asked.

To contain the disease, the international community will need to spend at least $100 million and perhaps as much as $300 million a year, said officials at the conference, which drew 28 nations as well as donors interested in financing efforts to fight the disease.

The money is needed to monitor the spread of the disease, provide vaccines to infected animals and educate subsistence farmers about hygienic practices that reduce the chances of infection.

Bird flu hit Vietnam and several other nations in the region a year ago, killing 32 people. Millions of chickens were slaughtered in an effort to curb the spread of the disease, and poultry sales were banned in many parts of Vietnam.

The most recent outbreaks have been concentrated in southern Vietnam, across the Mekong Delta. Much of the poultry raised there is sold in Ho Chi Minh City, which recently imposed another ban on poultry sales.

Cao Duc Phat, Vietnam's minister of agriculture, said his country would welcome help. "Our financial capacity is limited," he said. "We are trying our best."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050223 Bird flu cases

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