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Officials around the world scrambled yesterday to come to terms with the rapidly spreading bird flu strain in Asia, making plans to rush a new vaccine into production and urging the slaughter of tens of millions of ducks and chickens that may have been exposed to infection.
"We are observing a possible pandemic situation and we are trying to take precautionary measures in case significant human-to-human transmission takes place," said Klaus Stohr, head of the global influenza program of the World Health Organization in Geneva.
Tens of millions of birds have died in Asia, either after contracting the disease or in the wholesale slaughter being carried out to stem the spread.
The disease has spread to birds in at least 10 countries, and officials have reported 13 human cases of the avian flu strain in Vietnam and Thailand.
Ten people have died. The latest known fatalities are believed to be two Vietnamese sisters, who contracted the disease after killing chickens in preparation for their brother's wedding.
The women, ages 23 and 30, were admitted to a Hanoi clinic Jan. 13 and died Jan. 22. Their brother also died, but he was cremated and no blood samples were available to determine the cause of death.
WHO officials voiced caution about the sisters' cases, however, saying earlier tests had come back negative for bird flu and further testing would be required.
Scientists believe the deadly disease is spread when people come in contact with infected birds or their feces, but so far it does not appear that the virus can be transmitted from person to person.
Yet officials fear the flu could mutate or combine with a human flu strain in a way that could produce a potentially virulent human to human contagion - and Stohr said the rush to come up with a vaccine is aimed at that possibility.
A prototype vaccine could be ready in two months, but it will take about four months to test its safety.
Also, governments in Asia were being urged to give people taking part in the slaughter of birds immunizations against normal flu strains - not to prevent them from getting the avian flu, but to minimize the chance or producing a more lethal hybrid virus.
"It is a personal risk they take and in addition, of course, it increases the likelihood of this co-circulation of viruses," Stohr said.
New Scientist, a British weekly, reported yesterday that the avian flu epidemic began over a year ago and its spread may be due to government coverups of the problem, combined with questionable farming practices.
No cases of the disease, in either birds or humans has been reported in the United States.
The Center for Disease Control has asked doctors to stay alert for flulike symptoms among people who have returned from trips to Asia.
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