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31 March 2005

Bird Flu Death Toll Rises in Asia

Offers of assistance made to contain North Korean outbreak

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington – The World Health Organization (WHO) is boosting the official number of bird flu cases that have been confirmed in humans to 74, up from 69 when the agency issued a report about two weeks earlier. 

Of the new figure, 49 cases have resulted in deaths, WHO reported March 31 (Cumulative Number of Confirmed Human Cases of Avian Influenza).

The latest new cases were confirmed in Cambodia and Vietnam several days before the report was issued.  These two nations, along with Thailand, are the only countries that have reported human deaths from the virulent H5N1 strain of avian influenza that has stricken hundreds of millions of birds in poultry flocks across Asia.  (Country reports are available from the World Organisation for Animal Health at http://www.oie.int/eng/en_index.htm.)

North Korea became the most recent nation to report bird flu in poultry, making the announcement through its official media March 27.  It is still unknown whether bird deaths in that isolated nation will be attributed to H5N1 – which can be transmitted from birds to humans -- or some other strain less dangerous to people. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported March 30 that it will send several veterinary experts to Pyongyang to assess the North Korean outbreak and offer assistance in controlling the virus. 

South Korean officials have made the same offer to the North Korean government. Press accounts quote South Korean officials as saying they believe the outbreak across the border is probably “extensive,” even though the North Korean account ascribes the presence of bird flu to only a few poultry farms.

If they are to provide assistance, South Korea says, its experts need more accurate information about what strain of flu is present and how it is spreading in North Korea, a country with a government known for its secrecy and information control. 

The FAO is also emphasizing the need for regional cooperation in order to contain the disease.  North Korea is already involved in an FAO bird flu project with China, Mongolia and the Republic of Korea.  The effort is devoted to upgrading veterinary laboratories to better detect the disease and to establishing communications within multinational medical circles to control and prevent the disease. 

Regional cooperation in response to multinational disease outbreaks is improving greatly in the region, according to a U.S. government physician who has been working with Thai health officials since 2001.  

“With SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the world, the leaders of this region saw … the potential damage from emerging infections and the importance of being transparent about the way countries respond to it,” says Dr. Scott Dowell with the International Emerging Infections Program in Bangkok, a joint Thai-U.S. effort. 

The 2003 SARS outbreak spread around the globe in a very short time, and so raised a new level of awareness in the international health community about the damage a virulent disease can do in an age of globalized trade and jet travel.  The potential danger seemed even greater when China revealed it had significantly under-reported the number of cases it experienced in the first months of the outbreak. 

Dowell does not think such a situation will happen again.  “We’ve seen with the bird flu situation a lot more transparency and openness than we might have seen had there not been SARS just a year or so before that," he says.