Wed, Feb 11, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Economics taking priority in battling bird flu, WHO says

AFP AND AP , BANGKOK AND HANOI

Human lives are being endangered as Asian nations put economic considerations first in their response to the region's bird flu crisis, World Health Organization (WHO) officials said yesterday.

"Economics and agriculture are weighing too heavily in decisions taken by governments, and more concern should be given to the risk to human health," said Bjorn Melgaard, the WHO's representative in Thailand.

Several of the 10 Asian nations hit by bird flu have been criticized for attempting to cover up the outbreaks in an attempt to protect their agricultural sectors and tourism industries.

"The bottom line is, economic considerations are what dictate the responses of the governments trying to ensure the consequences of avian flu outbreak is minimized," Melgaard said.

"That's understandable, but it's more important that sufficient measures are taken to prevent humans from catching the disease," he said. "In a situation like this, human health must receive the highest priority."

The deadly H5N1 strain of the avian flu virus has killed at least 19 people in Asia, including five in Thailand and 14 in Vietnam, but so far health experts believe humans have been infected only through contact with sick birds.

However, the Geneva-based WHO has warned that H5N1 could kill millions across the globe if it combines with a human influenza virus to create a new, highly contagious strain transmissible among humans.

"It can be anticipated that human cases will also be detected in other countries where outbreaks in poultry are spreading," the WHO said in a statement posted on its Web site.

Governments around the world have slapped import bans on poultry from countries struck by bird flu, and although health experts agree with most restrictions -- especially on the transport of live birds -- they say that eating properly cooked chicken meat and eggs poses no danger.

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