The World Health Organization warns
that China may be the next nation to report human cases of the bird flu, as the
disease has spread to poultry farms across the country. Human infections of the
virus have so far been limited to Vietnam and Thailand.
The WHO said Tuesday that an increasing number of humans are at risk of catching
the bird flu as the disease continues its rapid spread in poultry flocks across
A few dozen people in Thailand and Vietnam have contracted the disease -
but many neighboring countries have reported outbreaks in chickens and are
therefore at risk of human infections. About 20 people have died of the virus
so far this year.
The United Nations health agency is particularly worried about China. Although
no human cases have yet been found there, an increasing number of provinces
have confirmed outbreaks among poultry.
"This infection is so widespread across great swaths of the country," said
WHO Mainila spokesman Peter Cordingley, referring to China. "The Chinese authorities
tell us they have no reported cases of infection in humans. We think it is
quite conceivable that there are human cases that have not been detected."
Mr. Cordingley says part of the problem in China is that health surveillance
systems are weak in poor, rural provinces and human cases might go unnoticed.
In at least 10 Asian countries, millions of chickens have been slaughtered
and buried in the effort to stamp out bird flu viruses. One type of virus also
has been found in the United States.
Scientists say this is probably the worst flu outbreak in birds on record,
but the disease does not spread easily between people. There is, however, a
risk that this flu, which is caused by the H5N1 virus, could pick up human
flu traits and cause a global pandemic in people.
United Nations scientists are keeping a close watch on three hospitals in
Vietnam for new cases or a change in the way the disease spreads. A U.N. official
in Vietnam said Tuesday the disease is far from being contained in rural areas.
While well-cooked chicken and eggs pose no danger to humans, governments
around the world have imposed trade bans on poultry products from countries
with outbreaks. The disease has been economically devastating for thousands
of farmers and workers.