Fears that new strain of bird flu will kill millions

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The Independent Online

International experts fear that bird flu is mutating into a strain that will cause a worldwide pandemic, killing many millions of people after the mass deaths of wild birds in China.

International experts fear that bird flu is mutating into a strain that will cause a worldwide pandemic, killing many millions of people after the mass deaths of wild birds in China.

Unconfirmed reports say that more than 100 people have also died, suggesting that the virus may have evolved to pass from person to person, breaking the final barrier preventing a worldwide catastrophe.

The Chinese government, while denying the reports of human deaths, has adopted emergency measures in Xinjiang, its remote north-western province, and has sealed off affected areas with roadblocks and closed all nature reserves.

"We are worried," says Noureddin Mona, of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's representatives in Beijing. "We should be prepared for the worst."

Shigeru Omi, of the World Health Organisation's regional director for the western Pacific, says "the virus has become highly pathogenic to more and more species".

"It remains unstable, unpredictable, and very versatile.

"Anything can happen. Judging from the way the virus has behaved, it may have new and unpleasant surprises in store for us."

Experts have long believed that the virus is spread by wild birds, but until now they have been thought to be immune to its effects. Last month, however, more than 1,000 were found to have died from the flu at the Qinghai Lake Nature Reserve. A second outbreak, in Tacheng city - on the border with Kazakhstan, 1,000 miles east of the lake - infected more than 1,000 domestic geese, of which 460 died.

A Chinese-language website called Boxun News and an internet medical alert system called pro-MED report that 200 people have been infected, of whom 121 died. The two sites first alerted the world to the Sars outbreak in 2003 when the Chinese authorities denied it.

China similarly denies that any people have been infected. But the government admits to alerting its heath departments around the province to prevent the spread of the disease and to opening special departments in hospitals for "screening patients with fever".

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