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International Health Experts Focus on Bird Flu's Threat to Humans

NEW YORK - The international health community is taking a closer look at bird flu, warning that it could be far more lethal than the SARS virus that struck Asia last year, according to news media.

At a meeting in Hong Kong, the World Health Organization said that the bird flu could create a pandemic that could kill as many as 50 million people, a World Health Organization official says.

A WHO estimate last week that the H5N1 virus could infect up to 30% of the world's population but conservatively limited deaths to 2-7 million people, said Shigeru Omi, Asian regional director of WHO's Western Pacific Regional Office.

"The maximum range is more ... maybe 20 to 50 million people," Omi was quoted as saying in a speech in Hong Kong today. "It will be incomparable to SARS," he said, clarifying that the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic killed 800 people around the world in 2003.

While SARS had a mortality rate of around 15%, the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu kills up to a third of the people it infects. H5N1 has proven to be versatile and is now able to latch itself onto more hosts, Omi said.

In the past year, ID Access published two articles about the possibility of the virus that has affected poultry jumping species and mutating, causing it to become deadlier, and ultimately infect humans.

"It has gone through huge genetic changes and become more pathogenic. It has affected not only birds, but cats, pigs and tigers and ducks are now playing a more important role," Omi said.

The virus has killed 32 people in Thailand and Vietnam this year and millions of chickens, ducks and other birds have been culled across Asia.

Almost all the human bird flu victims in Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam fell ill after direct contact with sick chickens, according to scientific evidence. Health officials state that with the illness already prevalent in poultry farms, they fear it will only be a matter of time before the disease mutates into a form that can leap between humans and sweep through populations with no immunity. Pigs, the likely next step, have already shown evidence of contracting the virus, according to one article in ID Access.

Infected ducks so far display no symptoms of the disease but shed huge amounts of the virus in their feces, a source of concern because ducks and chickens are often kept together in Asia and this could give rise to cross infection.

The following are links to earlier articles on bird flu that appeared in ID Access: "Bird Flu Does Not Pose Hazard to Food Supply - Not until Species Jump, Say Other Experts," Mar. 12

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