Scramble to devolop vaccine for new strain of killer flu

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Bird flu, the name given to a new, potentially fatal, strain of influenza, has claimed another victim in Hong Kong where it first came to light.

International researchers are scrambling to identify the characteristics of the virus, writes Stephen Vines in Hong Kong, amidst increasing fears of a pandemic.

Hong Kong health officials and experts from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta, USA, went into an emergency session yesterday after it was announced that a 54-year-old man had died from the disease and a 13-year-old girl was fighting for her life in hospital.

Bird flu, more properly known as H5N1, a strain of the influenza A virus, has killed one other person and infected a fourth.

Before researchers in Holland and the US discovered the first victim had died from the H5N1 virus, it had been thought that it was only found in poultry and could not be transmitted to humans. Lack of information about the new flu strain, and its ability to spread, has caused international authorities to urgently monitor the situation in Hong Kong. The World Health Organisation (WHO) was brought in when a three- year-old boy died last May after contracting the disease from chickens. Some 4,500 chickens died as a result of H5N1 influenza infection last April.

In humans, bird flu develops into Reye Syndrome which affects the nervous system and liver with fatal consequences.

Paul Saw, the deputy director of Hong Kong's health department, who chaired yesterday's emergency meeting, said the four victims had no connection and, at this stage, human-to-human transmission is not proven but he added: "We feel this possibility would need to be further looked into."

He said the WHO has been asked to "alert vaccine production centres in the world ... with a view to preparing the necessary vaccines". But he insisted there was no cause for panic as available evidence did not suggest the disease was widespread.

Daniel Lavancy, the WHO's headquarters chief in Geneva, said it would take at least six months to develop a vaccine against bird flu and feared that the spread of the disease would accelerate. "If we have four cases, yes, the virus is trying to seed itself in the population," he said.

Although the first victim died in May, it was not until August that doctors were able to confirm that the boy had died of bird flu. Hong Kong hospitals and clinics have now stepped up influenza surveillance activities to try and identify the existence of other cases.