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Warning over resurgent bird flu

30th August 2011

Global health experts have warned the world to be on alert once more over avian influenza.

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According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), health officials need to boost preparedness and surveillance.

They say that a mutant strain of the H5N1 virus is showing resistance to vaccines among poultry flocks in China and Vietnam.

A possible major resurgence of bird flu is now possible, with the virus spreading to Asia and beyond.

FAO said in a statement on its website that the risks to human health were "unpredictable."

Since it first emerged in 2003, the H5N1 virus has infected 565 people, killing 331 of them, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In Cambodia, the authorities have recorded a total of eight bird flu cases this year. All were fatal, and the latest death occurred only last month.

Repeated poultry culls, involving million domestic fowl and around US$20 billion in economic losses, are credited with keeping the disease under control and preventing its mutation to a form capable of spreading between humans.

At its peak in 2006, the virus had spread to 63 countries, although cases of human-to-human transmission were still rare.

Now experts are warning that H5N1 remains endemic in six countries.

Although infections in domestic poultry and wild birds have shrunk from around 4,000 to just 302 in the middle of 2008, they have begun to rise again every year since then.

In 2010-2011 alone, nearly 800 cases were recorded.

The virus, which is thought to be carried by migratory birds, is also beginning to expand its geographical reach once more.

FAO Chief Veterinary Officer Juan Lubroth said in the FAO statement that migrations help the virus travel over long distances.

Lubroth said that, in the past 24 months, avian influenza has started to show up again in poultry or wild birds in countries that had been virus-free for several years.

People were responsible for spreading the virus locally, Lubroth said, through poultry production and sales at market.

The virus has recently been reported as far away as Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Bulgaria, Romania, Nepal and Mongolia.

And in China and Vietnam, a strain of H5N1 has emerged which appears to have develop some resistance to vaccines currently used as a first line of defence in poultry flocks.

This strain, H5N1 - 2.3.2.1. has invaded northern and central Vietnam. Authorities suspended the springtime poultry vaccination campaign this year, and placed veterinary services on high alert.

Animal health officials are believed to be considering admistering a different vaccine in the autumn.

Virus among Vietnamese flocks can easily threaten those in Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia as well as the Korean peninsula and Japan.

Lubroth warned of a new "flare-up" of H5N1 when the autumn weather sets in in the northern hemisphere.

He said people could unexpectedly find the virus "in their backyard."

While no country is safe, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam will face the biggest risks from a resurgence of bird flu, he added.

He called on governments to boost preparedness and surveillance, and not to let their guard down out of complacency.


 

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