||Bird flu killing most of those who catch it
By SCOTT MacLEOD and NZPA
The Asian bird flu is killing three out of every four people who catch it, says a New Zealand virus expert at the World Health Organisation.
But despite the grim toll, many New Zealand travellers arriving from Asia seem barely aware of the disease and say they had no health checks when returning to Auckland.
Christchurch virologist Lance Jennings, who is fighting the outbreak with the WHO in the Philippines, said the death rate was very high.
"Nearly everyone who has been identified with the virus has died."
Six out of eight people in Vietnam and two out of three in Thailand had died. But the WHO was not sure of the exact death rate because it was not clear how many people had caught the virus.
Some travellers arriving in Auckland from Thailand last night spoke of a wave of anxiety spreading through the Asian country.
Others were barely aware of the disease, or seemed to have been misinformed about its origins.
Kane Fawcett, 27, was returning from nine months in the region and said he started hearing reports in the past week or two.
"There's a lot of paranoid Thais," he said. "My brother's girlfriend is Thai and she won't go near chicken. She told me the disease came out of the United States."
Julian Lynn, 45, saw a few stories about the virus in the Bangkok Post but said news of the disease came too suddenly and recently to make him worried.
He heard that chicken sales had halved in Thailand, although it still seemed to be on menus if diners wanted it.
"We ate chicken on the flight over," Mr Lynn said.
However, two Auckland women returning from Chiang Mai said poultry was "pulled off the menu" in the northern Thai city.
At least one local school had also stopped serving it to children, they said.
None of the New Zealanders was aware of extra health checks or security at airports.
Dr Jennings said evidence from Vietnam suggested children were most at risk, since they were the main people catching it.
The virus was therefore different to the H5N1 strain that struck Hong Kong in 1997, affecting people of all ages.
Scientists have found small differences between the two viruses' amino acids.
||Asian Experts Unite to Fight Bird Flu Crisis
By Darren Schuettler
BANGKOK (Reuters) - The 10 Asian countries hit by the rapid spread of bird flu that has killed at least eight people and threatens to develop into an epidemic worse than SARS promised Wednesday to fight it together.
Details of what they agreed were sparse as their task loomed even larger now the lethal virus has struck in China, the world's most populous country, the birthplace of severe acute respiratory syndrome and home to a vast poultry industry.
But the World Health Organization said the one-day meeting in Bangkok, also attended by European Union and U.S. officials, was a good start.
"This meeting is the beginning of the process. Quite clearly they're going to start to work together now," said WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley, who described some delegates as clearly shaken by the rapid onslaught of the H5N1 avian flu virus.
Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao reflected the urgency displayed by the WHO which, with two other international organizations, has called for money and expertise to launch an all-out war on the bird flu virus.
"Any epidemic must be eradicated as soon as it occurs to prevent it from spreading," the Chinese leaders were quoted by state television as saying. "Such an epidemic must be contained in one spot and cut off to prevent it from infecting humans."
China is slaughtering poultry around three farms in three regions where bird flu was confirmed Tuesday, the latest of the quick fire eruptions across Asia from Pakistan to Japan which the WHO says has no historical precedent.
The Bangkok statement said that was the right thing to do and "rapid culling" was the preferred solution to an outbreak, something Indonesia said it cannot do because it doesn't have the money to compensate farmers.
But Pakistan fell into line with experts' recommendations and most other countries hit by the virus and ordered a cull of all chickens affected by the flu in its port city of Karachi.
The Bangkok statement promised a regional animal survey system to be plugged into the health network to make it easier to tackle diseases such as bird flu and SARS which leap the species barrier
"Containment requires closer cooperation among governments, communities and businesses," it said.
The great fear is that the H5N1 avian flu virus might mate with human influenza and unleash a pandemic among people with no immunity to it.
So far, there is no evidence of transmission between people. Infected humans are believed to have caught the virus directly from birds. But experts say no matter how remote the possibility, every outbreak shortens the odds a little.
A Hong Kong scientist added to the fears by saying the unusually large number of ducks dying from bird flu in southern China indicated the bug has become more virulent, which would put more people at risk of contracting it.
"H5 viruses are generally less fatal to ducks, so it is uncommon for so many ducks to die. This means this particular H5N1 strain has become more virulent," said virologist Leo Poon from the University of Hong Kong.
"This means it can cause extensive deaths in poultry and this may in turn increase the chance of more people contracting it."
The outbreak in China was what experts dreaded most with its vast southern population living cheek by jowl with farm animals.
The U.S. government says nearly four out of five chickens in China, which accounts for 46 percent of world egg production, are raised on household farms, making epidemics harder to control.
But little appears to be available to fight the bird flu, a dilemma similar to the early stages of the fight against the SARS epidemic.
There are no vaccines for it because the bird flu virus has mutated since first crossing the species barrier in Hong Kong in 1997, killing six people.
Seven of the eight dead were children. No one knows why they are so vulnerable. No one is sure how it spreads, although wild birds are the prime suspects.
While economists say unless the virus mutates into one which can pass from human to human Asia's hopes of a stellar economic year are undented, the political dimension of the crisis is also acute for some countries.
Small farmers dependent on poultry are getting increasingly agitated, especially in Thailand and Indonesia, and stock markets are starting to take hits as investors fear a SARS-like impact -- $60 billion, the Asian Development Bank says.
A contrite Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had to admit to "mistakes and human errors" after domestic and international criticism that his government covered up the outbreak.
His chief spokesman described it as a "screw up" in the provinces where "we found there was lots of confusion about the kinds of information that needed to be reported upstairs."