UN bird flu chief warns world to expect spike in bird flu outbreaks

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The Independent Online

The world should expect more bird flu outbreaks in the coming winter months, the U.N. official coordinating the global fight against the virus warned Sunday after Britain recorded its first case of the H5N1 strain on a commercial farm.

Dr. David Nabarro said, however, that he did not expect the virus to spread in Britain to neighboring farms because of the quick containment measures put in place by the government.

"This should mean that there won't therefore be spread ... into other parts in the vicinity," he told The Associated Press in an interview in Indonesia, the country worst hit by the bird flu. "That is what I hope, but of course we will see over the next few days."

He said countries around the world where the virus was not endemic would likely see more cases in poultry in the first half of this year, mostly spread by migrating birds.

"I am expecting to see outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in a number of locations over the next three or four months, and I am basing it on what happened last year," he said, stressing that the risk to human health remained very small.

Nabarro said a recent spike in human deaths in Indonesia meant the country must do more to fight the virus despite improving its efforts in recent months, including the cull of backyard chickens in the capital last week.

"Just at the moment there are rather a lot of (cases) ... so that is why everybody needs to be a little anxious about what is happening and everybody needs to be forceful on moving rapidly and strongly forward with intensifying measures."

H5N1 has prompted the slaughter of millions of birds across Asia since late 2003, and caused the deaths of more than 160 people worldwide, around a third of them in Indonesia, according to the World Health Organization.

Most people killed so far have been infected by domestic fowl and the virus remains very hard for humans to catch. But experts fear it could mutate into a form that easily spreads among humans, sparking a pandemic with the potential to kill millions.

Nabarro said he wanted Indonesia to get US$100 million (euro77 million) in international aid to battle the virus this year — a fifth of the nearly US$500 million pledged by donors at a recent meeting in Africa — but could not promise it would receive that much.

"There is the capacity in Indonesia to absorb those funds," said Nabarro, who plans to discuss funding with government ministers on Monday.

He said controlling H5N1 in Indonesia's massive population of chickens and backyard flocks of birds would likely take several years.