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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

WHO warns against bird flu 'scaremongering'

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned against "scaremongering" as avian influenza gained a toehold in Europe.

The UN health agency also advised against panic buying of the antiviral drug Tamiflu, seen as a possible first line of defence if a widely feared human flu pandemic strikes.

As authorities in Turkey and Romania fight to contain the spread of the H5N1 virus among poultry flocks, other European governments are growing increasingly jittery.

The outbreaks increase "the number of countries in which this avian disease is prevalent and therefore by their very nature increase the risk of human exposure," said Michael Ryan, the UN health agency's pandemic alert chief.

But he sought to calm public concern about the role of migratory birds, blamed for carrying the virus spread from its Asian hotbed across Russia and into the rest of Europe.

"Clearly migratory birds may be implicated in spreading this disease and we may see avian influenza in other countries because of that," Ryan said.

Deaths of wild birds in some countries, including Croatia, have increased fears.

"But there are many, many other reasons for bird die-offs in populations, be it infectious or toxic," he said.

"So over-associating die-offs in particular bird species with avian influenza would be to risk scaremongering. The specific issue is to make sure that unusual die-offs are properly investigated.

"Clearly, people should limit their contact with dead or sick birds, but not every death of a bird in the world is necessarily avian influenza and it's important to remember that," Ryan said.

While avian influenza primarily affects birds, the H5N1 strain has killed more than 60 people in Southeast Asia since 2003.

Human-to-human transmission has been extremely limited.

But experts fear the bird virus could eventually combine with its human variant and mutate into a lethal, fast-spreading flu like those which killed tens of millions worldwide in the past.

Stepped-up surveillance is vital to lower the risk of the H5N1 virus jumping the species barrier, and governments must brace for a massive outbreak, the WHO has warned repeatedly.

"Maintaining vigilance is going to be a long and exhausting process," Ryan told reporters. "Nobody can say with any certainty when a pandemic virus will emerge."

Ryan praised Romania and Turkey for their "very transparent, quick, decisive response."

Both countries have culled poultry flocks and slapped travel restrictions on affected areas.

As experts try to develop a potential vaccine for what is still a hypothetical virus, the WHO is building a stockpile of Tamiflu, an antiviral drug which it believes could serve as a first line of defence, slowing down the spread of a pandemic.

Governments are also stockpiling Tamiflu to help cope with an emergency, but the WHO is urging caution over panic buying by individuals.

Many European pharmacies have seen their shelves cleared of Tamiflu because of snowballing demand.

"WHO at this point does not advise for individuals to stockpile this drug for any purpose," Ryan said.

"There is no indication at this stage for anyone to be taking this drug other than the very high-risk groups in areas in which the avian disease has become a problem," including poultry farmers and medical staff, he said.

Sales of poultry have slumped amid consumer worries, but Ryan said these are also misplaced.

"There is an issue of exposure for high-risk workers in the poultry industry, people working with wild birds and so on, but in terms of the food on your table, there's no public health risk."

Posted by Becca

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