New bird flu strain 'will be worse than Sars'

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The Independent Online

International health officials warned yesterday that the world was closer to its next pandemic - a potent mix of avian influenza and a human flu virus - and that Asia was likely to be its epicentre.

International health officials warned yesterday that the world was closer to its next pandemic - a potent mix of avian influenza and a human flu virus - and that Asia was likely to be its epicentre.

Francois-Xavier Meslin, the World Health Organisation's (WHO) co-ordinator for disease control, prevention and eradication, said: "We are getting closer, but when it's going to happen, I don't know. If it happens, which is not yet proven, it's going to be worse than Sars. A full-blown flu virus you can transmit easily to people in your family or people you work with. It's a highly contagious disease compared to Sars."

Sars, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, killed 774 and infected nearly 8,000, mostly in Asia, in 2003.

The H5N1 bird-flu virus, which ravaged the region's poultry stocks, also spread to people, killing 32 people in Thailand and Vietnam. But there was no evidence that it had acquired the human-flu characteristics it would need to be passed easily between people.

Once that happens, the result would be a pandemic that could cause as many as seven million deaths, the WHO has warned.

The WHO has raised fears that bird flu could mix with a virus carried by pigs, which are genetically more similar to humans, giving rise to a mutated strain that would become transmissible among people.

However, Mr Meslin noted that traditional Asian farming methods resulted in close contact between humans and animals, which meant a bird-flu virus that was contagious among people was more likely to come from someone who caught avian influenza directly from poultry. (AP)

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