Thursday 23 February 2017

Mutant strain of bird flu in Asia sparks new global alert

Douglas Goodwin in Rome

BIRD flu shows signs of a resurgence, while a mutant strain -- able to sidestep vaccines -- could be spreading in Asia, the United Nations has warned.

At a press conference in Rome, the UN warned that wild bird migrations had brought it back to previously virus-free countries and that a mutant strain was spreading in Asia.

The variant appeared in Vietnam and China and its risk to humans cannot be predicted, veterinary officials said.

Virus circulation in Vietnam threatens Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia, where eight people have died after becoming infected this year, they warned.

The World Health Organisation says bird flu has killed 331 people since 2003.

It has also killed or provoked the culling of more than 400m domestic poultry worldwide and caused an estimated $20bn (£12.2bn) of economic damage.

The virus had been eliminated from most of the 63 countries infected at its 2006 peak, which saw 4,000 outbreaks across the globe, but remains endemic in Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

And the number of cases has been rising again since 2008, apparently because of migratory bird movements, said the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) chief veterinary officer, Juan Lubroth.

"Wild birds may introduce the virus, but people's actions in poultry production and marketing spread it," he said.

A mutant strain of H5N1, which can apparently sidestep defences of existing vaccines, is spreading in China and Vietnam, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said.

It urged greater surveillance to ensure that any outbreaks are contained. Avian flu has in the past two years appeared in poultry or wild birds in countries that had been virus-free for several years. Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Bulgaria, Romania, Nepal and Mongolia are among those recently affected.

Mr Lubroth said the new strain had infected most parts of northern and central Vietnam and could also pose a risk to Japan and the Korean peninsula. South Korea began culling hundreds of thousands of chickens and ducks in December last year after confirming its first cases since 2008.

The FAO is calling for countries to adopt "heightened readiness and surveillance" against a resurgence of the virus.

Vietnam suspended its springtime poultry vaccination this year, FAO said. Most parts of the country where the virus is endemic have been invaded by the new strain.

The number of outbreaks in poultry and wild bird populations shrank from a high of 4000 to 302 in mid-2008, but outbreaks have risen progressively since, with almost 800 cases reported in 2010-2011, the UN said in its statement released last night.

Irish Independent

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