According to WHO spokesperson Peter Cordingley, the "bird flu could be potentially more dangerous than SARS if it attaches itself to the common flu virus, and if this new virus is then effectively transmitted like the common flu virus, we have the potential for widespread damage".
In a statement released this week, the FAO said that the disease seemed to have affected South Korea, Vietnam and Japan in a remarkably short period of time. "Possible links between these outbreaks must be investigated. If there are such links, the epidemiological reasons must be elucidated," the organisation said in a statement.
Vietnam declared an outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza H5N1 in the southern part of the country last week. The Office International des Epizooties (OIE) in Paris, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and FAO were immediately informed. Vietnam says it rapidly applied appropriate control measures such as the killing of several hundred thousands of chickens, disinfection, quarantine, control of animal movements, and general surveys.
Avian Influenza is a very serious disease of domestic birds, particularly chickens and ducks. It appears more and more frequently all over the world. Outbreaks affect the livelihood of thousands of farmers relying on chicken production. FoodProductionDaily.com reported extensively on outbreaks in the Netherlands and South Korea last year.
Avian flu rarely affects humans. To be contaminated, a direct contact between humans and birds is needed. During an outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997, six deaths out of 18 cases occurred; in the Netherlands in 2003, 83 cases occurred and one person died.
In Vietnam so far, the authorities have declared 14 cases of severe respiratory disease in Hanoi, and 11 people have died. Three of these cases were confirmed as Avian flu victims.
There are also fears that Thailand's poultry industry could be badly affected following the discovery of an outbreak of poultry cholera. The government announced yesterday that it will inspect all 20,000 poultry farms in an attempt to contain the crisis. Thailand's poultry export industry is worth more than one billion euros a year, and Europe is a major market.
Around 400,000 chickens have died in Thailand since November, half killed by cholera and the rest through culling to prevent the spread of the virulent strain of poultry cholera known as Pasteurella Multocida Type A. However, Thai officials insist the country is free of the bird flu that is currently affecting other South East Asian countries.