March 6, 2006

Experts prepare for bird flu pandemic

By Karolina Slowikowska

WARSAW -- Avian flu extended its spread across Europe as Poland confirmed its presence in wild birds on Monday and experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) met to discuss the threat of a human influenza pandemic.

China said on Sunday the H5N1 virus had killed a man in the southern Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong. There had been no reported outbreaks in birds in the area where he died and experts in Hong Kong urged authorities to find the source.

The WHO has previously confirmed 94 deaths from bird flu since late 2003. The virus remains essentially an animal disease which humans contract through close contact with infected birds.

However, the virus is mutating and there are fears it may eventually acquire the changes it needs to be easily transmitted from human to human.

The virus is currently spreading rapidly among wild birds and has reached 15 new countries over the past month, moving across Europe and also hitting Egypt and West Africa.

Two dead swans found in northern Poland had the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, the Polish veterinary institute was quoted as saying by the PAP news agency on Monday.

"It was the H5N1 strain. It's certain," the institute's Jan Zmudzinski said.

"The test specifically for the H5N1 strain was positive."

The rapid spread of the virus has dealt a heavy blow to Europe's poultry industry and heightened fears for human health.

"Events in recent weeks justify our concern," said Margaret Chan, the WHO's top influenza official, at the start of a three-day meeting in Geneva to prepare defenses against a pandemic.


Experts in Hong Kong are demanding to know how thorough surveillance of the disease is in China after Chinese officials reported a ninth human death from the virus.

"It may mean that the surveillance system is not good enough to detect such an outbreak, or poultry deaths have not been handled as seriously as human cases, that they are buried or burned without investigating the cause," said infectious disease expert Lo Wing-lok in Hong Kong on Monday.

"There is a case for the Guangdong provincial government to come clean on the situation of poultry infection in Guangdong."

Guangdong shares a land border with Hong Kong, where the H5N1 virus made its first known jump to man in 1997, killing six people.

Health experts stress there is no risk from eating properly cooked meat, but fears over the virus have dented consumption.

France, which has Europe's largest poultry industry, has said it is losing 40 million euros ($48 million) a month after an outbreak of H5N1 at a poultry farm. The news prompted more than 40 countries to impose curbs on French poultry products, including foie gras.

France announced a new case of H5N1 in a wild duck in the east of the country on Sunday, while another test on a wild swan showed the virus had spread several hundred km (miles) south to the Mediterranean Bouches-du-Rhone area.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said on Saturday the United States was preparing for an outbreak of avian flu and assured consumers that poultry remains safe to eat.

"There is no way to put a big cage around the United States. I think it is fair to assume we'll deal with ... avian influenza," said Johanns. "We could see it in domestic flocks as well as (wild) birds."

(Additional reporting by Richard Waddington in Geneva, Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong and Carey Gillam in Kansas City)