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Fast probe of bird flu cases vital to prevent human pandemic, says UN agency

Avian Influenza
14 March 2005 With Viet Nam confirming 10 more human cases of bird flu, bringing the total since mid-December to 24, 13 of them fatal, the United Nations health agency is stressing the critical need for full information to assess the risks of a pandemic that in a worst-case scenario could claim tens of millions of lives worldwide.

“Rapid field investigation of each new case is essential to ensure timely detection of clusters of cases occurring in family members or health care workers,” the World Health Organization (WHO) says in its latest update.

“Such cases can provide the first signal that the virus is altering its behaviour in human populations and thus alert authorities to the need to intervene quickly,” it added of the H5N1 virus, which has caused 69 reported infections, 46 of them fatal, since the first human case linked to widespread poultry outbreaks in Viet Nam and Thailand was reported in January last year.

The agency has repeatedly warned that H5N1 could mutate into a new human virus with pandemic potential. The so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-20, which was not related to the present virus, is estimated to have killed between 20 million and 40 million people worldwide.

Nearly 140 million domestic birds have died or been culled over the past year in southeast Asia in an effort to curb the spread of the disease. WHO is concerned that continuing transmission to humans might give avian and human influenza viruses an opportunity to exchange genes, facilitating a pandemic.