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IN THE NEWS - Bird Flu: Hoping for the Best, but Preparing for the Worst

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I'm Steve Ember with IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

There are more warnings about the need to prepare for the possibility of a worldwide outbreak of bird flu.

VOA's Steve Herman in Tokyo reported Friday on the results of a two-day meeting held by Japan and the World Health Organization. Delegates from more than twenty countries discussed a plan they hope might contain the early spread of any influenza pandemic.

W.H.O. Western Pacific director Shigeru Omi says containment alone is not enough. He says "all the possible options" must be used. That includes doing more to watch for the risk of person-to-person infection.

Shigeru Omi, Western Pacific director for the World Health Organiztion
Shigeru Omi, Western Pacific director for the World Health Organiztion

Doctor Omi also says some countries need to be more open about reporting infections in animals and people. He did not say which countries.

The W.H.O. says about one and one-half thousand million dollars will be needed over three years to prepare for a pandemic. A meeting next week in Beijing will deal with how to pay for it. The World Bank has just offered five hundred million dollars.

The current outbreak of bird flu began in Southeast Asia in December of two thousand three, leading to about eighty deaths. Health officials say the victims have been mostly young people who had close contact with infected birds or sick people. China and Turkey have reported the most recent human infections.

The W.H.O. says the h-five-n-one virus already has met two of the three conditions for a pandemic. It is new, so there is no natural protection. And it can make people very sick. The third condition is that a virus must change into a form that can pass easily from person to person.

W.H.O. officials say tests on two people who died in Turkey found a small genetic change in the virus. But they say it is too soon to know how this might affect the spread of the virus. They say similar changes appeared in two thousand three in Hong Kong and last year in Vietnam.

Experts continue to learn more about the virus. New research may show it to be more widespread but not as deadly as people have thought. This week, the Archives of Internal Medicine published a study by Swedish and Vietnamese scientists. Their findings suggest that sick or dead birds can spread mild avian influenza to humans. They say doctors may be seeing only the most severe cases.

The W.H.O. is taking no chances. It wants every country to develop a plan.

France, for example, has announced plans to gather enough facemasks and medicines for all its people. European Union countries have until February seventh to propose how they will keep watch for bird flu. E.U. officials this week extended a testing program for poultry and wild birds.

In the United States, efforts include new public guidelines about how to prepare for a pandemic. The government has a Web site, www.pandemicflu.gov. More information about avian influenza can also be found at www.who.int and at www.voanews.com.

IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English was written by Nancy Steinbach. I'm Steve Ember.

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