UN Agency Issues New Avian Flu Warning

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations said the most recent H5N1 death occurred earlier this month in Cambodia, which has registered eight cases of human infection this year. All were fatal.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations on Aug. 29 recommended increased readiness and surveillance against a "possible major resurgence" of the H5N1 highly pathogenic avian influenza, saying there are signs that a mutant strain of the virus is spreading in Asia and beyond, with unpredictable risks to human health. The virus has infected 565 people since it first appeared in 2003, killing 331 of them, according to WHO figures, and FAO said the most recent death occurred earlier this month in Cambodia, which has registered eight cases of human infection this year. All were fatal.

Since 2003, H5N1 has killed or forced authorities to kill more than 400 million domestic poultry animals, representing an estimated $20 billion of economic damage, before it was eliminated from most of the 63 countries infected at its peak in 2006. But it remained endemic in six nations. While annual cases fell from 4,000 to only 302 in mid-2008, they're now rising, with almost 800 cases recorded in 2010-2011 in both poultry and wild birds, according to Juan Lubroth, the agency's chief veterinary officer.

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

Recently affected areas have been identified in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Bulgaria, Romania, Nepal, and Mongolia, and a new virus strain -- H5N1 - 2.3.2.1 -- that appears not to be stopped by existing vaccines has been found in China and in Viet Nam, which suspended its springtime poultry vaccination campaign this year.

"The general departure from the progressive decline observed in 2004-2008 could mean that there will be a flare-up of H5N1 this fall and winter, with people unexpectedly finding the virus in their backyard," Lubroth said. Countries where H5N1 is still firmly entrenched -– Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Viet Nam -– are likely to face the biggest problems, but no country can consider itself safe, he added. "Preparedness and surveillance remain essential. This is no time for complacency. No one can let their guard down with H5N1."

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