Bird flu outbreak could kill millions, warns UN

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The Independent Online

The deadly outbreak of bird flu in Asia poses a grave danger of becoming a global pandemic that could threaten the lives of millions, United Nations officials warned yesterday.

The deadly outbreak of bird flu in Asia poses a grave danger of becoming a global pandemic that could threaten the lives of millions, United Nations officials warned yesterday.

International health and animal experts said there is still time to control the disease's spread if quick actions are taken to stem the virus at its source - in animals.

"We believe that the world is now in the gravest possible danger of a pandemic," said Dr Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organisation's Western Pacific regional director.

Speaking at the opening of a three-day bird flu conference in Ho Chi Minh City, Dr Omi said it is critical that the international community coordinates its fight against the virus.

"If the virus becomes highly contagious among humans, the health impact in terms of deaths and sickness will be enormous, and certainly much greater than Sars," Dr Omi said, referring to severe acute respiratory syndrome, which killed nearly 800 people in 2003.

Experts gathered for the conference have repeated concerns that the H5N1 virus could become far deadlier if it mutates into a form easily transmitted among humans. There is no evidence that has happened, but recurring bird flu outbreaks this year have reignited fears.

The disease, which devastated the region's poultry industry last year as it swept through nearly a dozen countries, has killed 45 people over the past year: 32 Vietnamese; 12 Thais; and one Cambodian. The cases are linked to contact with sick birds. Bird flu's reappearance in Vietnam, where 12 people have died this year, indicates the virus has now become endemic in parts of the region.

The virus has proven to be "very versatile" and has even been found in animals such as tigers and cats. (AP)

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