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Concern over Asian bird flu mutating

The World Health Organisation has said it fears an Asian bird flu virus could mutate into a far more lethal form.

Last Modified: 23 Jan 2004 05:14 GMT
Less than a year after SARS, bird flu may prove as infectious

The World Health Organisation has said it fears an Asian bird flu virus could mutate into a far more lethal form.

WHO spokesman Bob Dietz told journalists in Vietnam on Thursday that the spread of the virus is so wide across such a large part of Asia that "we see there is a reason for growing concern".

"The more widespread it becomes the more chance there is that it could alter its form."

Japan has banned imports of Thai chicken after the government reported three suspected human cases of the deadly disease.

France also decided to remove fresh meat from the southeast Asian country.

The H5N1 strain of avian influenza has already killed at least five people in Vietnam and been reported in Japan and South Korea, with a sub-category, H5N2, found in Taiwan.

Mutation

WHO says the five victims in Vietnam were infected after coming into contact with droppings from sick birds.

But Dietz warned that human-to-human transmission was "a possible next step" if the virus keeps spreading.

"It is impossible to predict a time or date for this but there are mounting opportunities for the virus to alter its form and begin affecting the human population," he said.

The Thai government said it would not know until Friday whether the three suspected cases, including a chicken butcher and a seven-year-old boy, were infected with bird flu.

However, Thai senator Nirun Phitakwatchara said the boy's case was confirmed and he accused the government of covering up the outbreak to protect its chicken export industry - Asia's largest, worth some $1.2 billion.

Political interest

"The more widespread it becomes the more chance there is that it could alter its form."

Bob Dietz,
WHO spokesman

Nirun urged the government to admit that an epidemic of "fowl cholera and bronchitis" in five Thai provinces, which has forced a cull of up to six million chickens, was in fact an outbreak of avian influenza.

"All the academics and experts have had to shut up due to political interference. As a matter of fact they realised that the outbreak had occurred since last November.".

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who publicly ate chicken on Tuesday to promote confidence in the industry, denied a cover-up.

"If the test results prove that it is the bird flu, the public should not panic as it is not transmitted from human to human like SARS," he said, referring to the atypical pneumonia which swept parts of Asia in 2003.

Pandemic history

Bird flu has already led to the culling or deaths of more than two million chickens in Vietnam, nearly two million in South Korea, 55,000 in Taiwan and 35,000 in Japan.

The WHO has warned the world could face another influenza pandemic if H5N1 swaps genes with a common flu virus, creating a lethal pathogen that could spread around the globe within months.

An estimated 50 million people died from the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. This was followed by pandemics in 1957-1958 and 1968-1969. Another is considered inevitable and possibly imminent.

Only the swift culling of 1.4 million birds in Hong Kong during an outbreak of H5N1 there in 1997 that killed six people averted a global health crisis, according to the UN agency.

Source:
Reuters
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