Bird flu sparks Asian health scare
A Vietnamese chicken seller. WHO officials are investigating how humans came into contact with the virus.
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HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- World Health Organization officials have warned an outbreak of bird flu that has been racing across chicken farms in Asia could become a bigger problem than SARS.
Though WHO officials point out there is no evidence of human to human transmission nor is there any documented cases of infection through eating poultry products, they fear the disease may latch on to a normal human influenza virus.
Avian influenza is being blamed for at least three deaths in Vietnam during an outbreak there and tests are underway to determine if the disease is responsible for nine more fatalities.
The three deaths so far have been confirmed as Influenza A, or the H5N1 strain, the same virus found in the sick chickens, the World Health Organization said.
Bird flu has also been detected in Japan and South Korea in recent weeks prompting governments across the region to kill millions of chickens and banning imports in an effort to contain the outbreak.
The WHO -- currently investigating new SARS outbreak fears in China -- is worried by the rapid spread of the bird flu virus, which is similar to the strain discovered in a South Korean epidemic in December.
"The presence of avian influenza in humans is of concern to WHO because humans apparently have little immune protection against the strain," a WHO statement Tuesday said.
The WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific, Dr. Shigeru Omi, has said that if human-to-human transmission were to occur, "we would have a serious situation."
WHO spokesman for the Western Pacific region, Peter Cordingly, said children seem to have borne the brunt of the outbreak in Vietnam's Hanoi region, accounting for 13 of the 14 cases since October.
It is widely suspected they became infected by touching birds carrying the disease, or coming into contact with their waste.
"This virus is normally contracted through the feces of poultry -- chicken and ducks. And we are working on the scenario that these children are playing around in the backyard where chickens are present and out in the streets, " Cordingly told CNN on Wednesday.
"Often in the suburbs of Hanoi, chickens roam wild and they may have come in contact that way. ...That is quite clearly an avenue of investigation we should start with."
South Korean government officials dump bags full of dead chickens.
WHO officials are working with Vietnamese health authorities in their investigation into the outbreak.
Over 40,000 birds in two Vietnamese provinces have died from the virus, with as many destroyed.
Japan, meanwhile, has confirmed its first outbreak of avian flu among chickens with 6,000 of the birds killed by the virus in a farm in the western prefecture of Yamaguchi.
About 30,000 chickens would be culled, Japanese officials said.
Last month, over one million chickens and ducks died or were slaughtered in South Korea after an outbreak of bird flu.
No cases in humans were reported and there is no evidence of any connection between the cases in South Korea, Japan and Vietnam, the WHO statement said.
The first documented cases of bird flu affecting humans was in Hong Kong in 1997 when six people died. Over one million poultry animals were culled.
The new health scare comes as health authorities around the world are dealing with two other diseases -- mad cow disease and SARS.
A confirmed case of SARS in China and at least one other suspected case have sparked renewed fears of another outbreak of the potentially deadly illness which killed almost 800 and infected thousands around the world last year.
Scientific evidence suggests the SARS virus may have jumped from civet cats -- a popular delicacy in China -- and created the outbreak that began in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in November 2002.
"It might be time, although this is none of WHO's business really, but the bottom line is that humans have to think about how they treat their animals and how they farm them, how they market them -- basically the whole relationship between the animal kingdom and the human kingdom is coming under stress," Cordingly said.