Bird flu - the battle could be over

Even though Dr. David Nabarro, chief pandemic flu coordinator for the United Nations says he is encouraged by how both Thailand and Vietnam had responded to the health crisis facing their domestic poultry, and their successful efforts to reduce the threat of the disease, the deadly H5N1 strain still remains a significant threat, especially to Indonesia and Africa.

He has attributed the success of the two countries to very strong political leadership, excellent work by government officials, and intensive involvement of people at the community level.

Nabarro says despite the positive signs, it did not mean the threat of bird flu had abated.

He warns that the killer virus, which emerged in South-East Asia in 2003, could still mutate into a more virulent strain which could become a human pandemic.

In Vietnam where almost 50 percent of the initial cases were reported, not a single human case or an outbreak of flu in poultry has occurred this year.

Thailand which was the second-hardest-hit nation has also not seen a human case for over a year or a poultry outbreak for over six months.

These positive signs are welcomed by health experts along with the fact that despite predictions, birds making the spring migration north from Africa have not brought the bird flu virus into Europe.

Officials however are reluctant to declare the battle is over as the virus remains a threat in both Myanmar and Indonesia where the World Health Organization (WHO) is presently investigating suspected bird flu infections in eight people in a large family where four have already died.

Many now believe that measures to protect domestic flocks such as culling suspect poultry and inoculating healthy birds, and educating farmers, can successfully contain any bird flu outbreak.

But Dr. Nabarro advises caution since very little is known about how the disease spreads or if the current situation is a lull before the storm and other experts agree.

He says that Vietnam and Thailand adopted different methods to fight the disease.

The Vietnamese undertook a massive vaccination program of all poultry, while Thailand who could not afford a vaccination program resorted to culling and compensated farmers who lost their poultry stock.

Thailand also appointed a volunteer in every village to report sick chickens and vaccinated all their fighting cocks, which bring in a revenue of thousands of dollars.

The vaccinated fighter cocks are then given passports along with their vaccination records allowing them to travel freely.

According to the World Health Organization, Thailand and Vietnam were also quite scrupulous with regard to the anti-viral drug Tamiflu and supplies were sent to even the smallest regional hospitals, and health workers instructed to begin treating suspected cases prior to confirmatory diagnosis.

China also appears to have been determined in it's handling of outbreaks of the virus and has carried out its promise to vaccinate all domestic poultry.

To date this year China has reported only 10 cases as compared to 8 last year, whereas, says Nabarro, the situation in Cambodia and Laos remains vague, as no poultry outbreaks have been reported.

Nabarro says countries need to remain on alert at all times.

The latest news and comments appear to support the Dutch environmental group Wetlands International which said last week that fears of the H5N1 bird flu migrating to flocks of wild birds are unfounded as they have failed to find any trace of the virus in tests of as many as 5,000 wild birds in countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Senegal, Malawi and Kenya.

The bird flu virus first appeared in Asia in 1997 and has since spread rapidly across Asia and Europe as well as Africa.

The virus remains a disease of birds and is only contracted by humans after close contact with infected birds.

According to the World Health Organization, to date 115 humans have died of the highly pathogenic bird flu and most of the deaths have occurred in Asia.

Experts remain concerned that the virus may mutate to a form that is easily transmissible between humans, triggering a worldwide pandemic.

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