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Avian flu continues to spread in south-east A -

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Avian flu continues to spread in south-east Asia

Reporter: Hamish Fitzsimmons

TONY JONES: Health officials in the United States are trying to discover how thousands of vials
containing a deadly flu virus were sent in the mail to laboratories around the world. The World
Health Organisation warned the accident creates a risk of a global pandemic if the virus escaped.
It's now hoped all the samples will be destroyed by tomorrow. But a very similar virus continues to
spread relentlessly through South-East Asia. So far the bird flu has not mutated enough to enable
easy human-to-human infection, but medical experts fear it is just a matter of time before it does.
It's already mutated enough to infect other species, including tigers, leopards, domestic cats,
pigs and mice. And in February, 500 open-billed storks were found dead in Thailand's largest
freshwater wetland. Hamish Fitzsimmons reports.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Avian flu continues to spread throughout south-east Asia and remains deadly. An
8-year-old Cambodian girl has become its most recent victim. An investigation into her death last
week found poultry in her village had been dying two weeks before she became ill. Of the 80 human
cases since January last year, 50 have been fatal, and millions of birds have been destroyed. It's
hit animals previously unaffected by the virus, which has led experts to fear it is evolving at a
rapid pace. In October last year, more than 100 tigers in a Thai zoo were put down after they
became infected with the virus from eating diseased poultry. The World Health Organisation says
there's no direct evidence of human-to-human transmission of avian flu. But Thai authorities
suspected one such case last September. It hasn't been conclusively proven that there was human
transmission. In Vietnam, officials say a recent survey of birds in the country's south found a 70
per cent infection rate of avian flu in ducks and geese and 24 per cent in chickens. Other
influenza strains remain a concern. Health authorities are battling to make sure a potentially
deadly strain of flu virus is destroyed after it was revealed an American laboratory sent thousands
of samples around the world in test kits.

DR KLAUS STOHR, WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION INFLUENZA CHIEF: We also wanted to make sure that the
work on destruction has started, because this H2N2 Asian flu strain virus could possibly also be
used for other purposes. There is a bio-security risk.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The H2N2 strain of the influenza virus killed between 1 million and 4 million
people around the world between 1957 and 1958 in what was known as 'the Asian flu pandemic'.

DR ALAN HAMPSON, WHO COLLABORATIVE CENTRE FOR INFLUENZA: This particular case is one in question
where they've used it as a reference virus and I think ill-advisedly, simply because as time has
gone by the human population will have less and less immunity to this type of virus.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Dangerous viruses are routinely stored in many laboratories but authorities
acknowledge there should be limits on their distribution.

DR ALAN HAMPSON: It's important we do keep reference viruses that we can use for research, and as
potential vaccine strains, if we do see a similar virus emerging in the human population. But it's
equally important that we don't spread these viruses around without due concern, and in large
quantities.

HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The WHO says it hopes to know whether most of the samples of H2N2 have been
destroyed by Friday.

Hamish Fitzsimmons, Lateline.