Countries have been urged not to get slack in preventing a bird-flu outbreak within their borders; stated the world's paramount authority on trade in farm animals on Wednesday.
Outbreaks of H5N1 avian influence among poultry fell last year, as did the toll among humans who came into contact with infected birds, but the story is far from over, said Bernard Vallat, director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health, or OIE.
"There is still a risk from the poultry trade, because the virus has become endemic in some countries that have been unable to get rid of it," Vallat told reporters.
Vallat singled out Egypt and Indonesia as countries where, he said, veterinary surveillance was insufficient.
In China and Vietnam, said Vallat, outbreaks of H5N1 had been managed thanks to systematic vaccination of poultry flocks.
"However, this is expensive and will have to stop one day," he said.
H5N1 bird flu has now killed 248 people since it reappeared in Asia in 2003, according to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) tally.
Of these, 113 died in Indonesia, 52 in Vietnam, 21 in China and 17 in Thailand.
Deaths last year numbered 31, after 59 in 2007 and 79 in 2006. Eighteen occurred in Indonesia, five in Vietnam and four each in Egypt and in China.
Scientists fear the virus could eventually mutate into a form more easily transmissible between humans, triggering a global pandemic.
Despite the declining human toll, "the theoretical risk of the virus mutating and becoming a killer is still there," said Vallat, who made the comments in a New Year's meeting with reporters in Paris.
Vallat said it was in the interests of rich countries to beef up veterinary surveillance in poor countries.
As a result of globalization, the spread of an animal-borne disease to other economies can have disastrous consequences, he noted.
On Monday, a 19-year-old Chinese woman died of H5N1 in Beijing after coming into contact with ducks at a poultry market. Authorities in Vietnam also announced Tuesday an eight-year-old girl had tested positive for H5N1 in the north of the country.
The girl's 13-year-old sister also died in hospital last week, health officials said Thursday, while denying the virus was to blame, even though no tests were carried out before she was buried.