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U.N. Warns of Coming Risk to Africa From Bird Flu

UPDATE: The story below is from January. With the bird flu now found in Nigeria, get the latest information from VOA's Avian Flu News page


I’m Steve Ember with the VOA Special English Health Report.

Nobody can tell where bird flu will appear next. But experts from the United Nations say it could be Africa. Delegates heard warnings last week at an international conference in Beijing.

The U.N. coordinator for avian influenza, David Nabarro, says Africa is a strong possibility this spring because of the pathways of wild birds. Still, Mister Nabarro says every country in the world should get prepared.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization had its own warnings for the coming months. It says wild birds coming from Africa could spread the virus in the Black Sea, Caucasus and Near East areas. It says trade and the movement of people could also spread the flu.

The World Health Organization says at least eighty people have died of the h-five-n-one virus since December of two thousand three. This month, Turkey became the first country outside East Asia to report cases in people.

The conference in Beijing took place to raise money to fight bird flu. The United States and others offered almost two thousand million dollars. U.N. officials said they had expected less.

Experts say the virus could kill millions if it changes into a form that spreads easily from person to person.

People are warned about the risk from sick or dead birds or infected waste. But the W.H.O. says heat kills the virus in poultry meat if all parts are cooked to at least seventy degrees Celsius.

The virus has not been reported in Africa. But the fact that many Africans, like many Asians, keep chickens and other poultry is a cause for concern. Also, many areas already suffer from hunger, poverty and high death rates from AIDS.

Experts say Africa does not enough resources to identify birds that might be infected. Money would also be needed to contain any outbreaks, and to treat any infected people.

Scientists are working on vaccines to protect against the virus. They are also working on new influenza treatments. Some say there is not enough evidence to know how effective current antiviral drugs like Tamiflu might be against bird flu.

One new drug said to have shown some promise in laboratory tests is peramivir. Tests in people began in December. American officials have agreed to a speedy approval process for this new drug.

Yet experts say public health measures as simple as hand washing are also important in the fight against bird flu.

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Cynthia Kirk. Read and listen to our reports at I’m Steve Ember.