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Bird flu now bigger challenge than AIDS, says WHO

7 March 2006 at 06:07 | 674 views

The H5N1 strain of avian flu surpasses AIDS in terms of the challenge it poses to worldwide health systems, an official with the World Health Organization warned Monday.

Speaking at a meeting in Geneva, Dr. Margaret Chan pointed out that since February, the lethal virus has been detected in 17 countries stretching from Asia to Europe and extending south into Africa.

"Concern has mounted progressively, and events in recent weeks justify that concern," Reuters quoted Chan as saying.

For example, Poland confirmed on Monday that two wild swans found dead last week about 200 kilometres north of Warsaw were infected with the H5N1 strain.

Chan, the WHO’s main health administrator dealing with the H5N1 outbreak, also told the meeting that 300 million farmers around the world have lost the equivalent of $11.4 billion Cdn as their flocks were killed in efforts to prevent the disease from spreading.

A tally being kept by WHO shows that 175 people are confirmed to have contracted bird flu, mostly through contact with infected chickens, ducks, turkeys or wild birds. Among the infected people, 95 have died of the disease.

That includes the latest casualty, an unemployed man in China’s southern Guangdong province whose death was officially attributed to H5N1 on Sunday.

People can only become infected through close contact with infected birds, but scientists are concerned that the virus is mutating and could become more easily transmitted to and among humans.

In Austria, authorities said Monday that several cats had tested positive for the virus.

Two or three cats that tested positive were all still alive, said an agriculture official in Styria state.

German authorities said last month that a cat had died from the virus. It was believed to have caught the disease from eating an infected bird.

On the weekend, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said the United States was preparing for an outbreak of avian flu.

Photo: Swan in Poland
Credit: cbc.ca

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