Just when the experts are happy about the significant improvement in containing the bird flu AUSTRALIAN scientists have reported the discovery of a new virus carried by bats that can cause serious flu-like symptoms in humans.
Health and veterinary experts have singled out Indonesia, Egypt and Nigeria as countries where the risk of bird flu contagion is particularly worrisome.
FAO's Chief Veterinary Officer Joseph Domenech said important results have been achieved in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. He said that in places where the H5N1 virus was introduced during the past six months, it was rapidly detected and eliminated or controlled.
But he warned that, although the response to the deadly H5N1 virus in poultry has significantly improved over the past three years, the virus remains entrenched in several countries and will continue to spread.
But Domenech also stressed that there should be absolutely no reason for complacency.
"The H5N1 virus is not stable and keeps constantly changing. On one occasion in China last year a new virus strain appeared with different immunologic characteristics which made it necessary to modify the vaccines used in the region concerned. This emergence of a new strain may have happened again more recently in Indonesia."
The new disease is causing a lot of concern. A new respiratory disease that causes flu-like symptoms may be spread by bats. The virus was discovered in three members of a family in Malaysia last year. The Melaka virus, named after the place it was discovered, is not believed to be a killer virus, but its symptoms of fever and respiratory illness are severe and it's easily passed on to others.
It causes an illness with similar respiratory symptoms to deadly avian flu. Dr Linfa Wang, a molecular virologist with the CSIRO in Geelong, Victoria, said "So far, we don't have evidence that it is fatal, but it causes severe respiratory distress."
The Melaka virus represents a new trend of infectious diseases coming from animals, known as zoonotic viruses.
In Germany, authorities are testing the carcasses of four birds to determine whether they carried the H5N1 strain of avian flu after the virus was found in nine cases in the country in the past three days.
Six birds infected with the virus were found dead in the southern state of Bavaria and three in the eastern state of Saxony. The disease has been found in geese and turkeys on farms in Hungary, the U.K. and the Czech Republic this year. The three birds discovered near the German city of Nuremberg June 24 are the European Union's first cases of H5N1 in wild birds this year. In 2006, it was detected in more than 700 wild birds in the EU.
So far, there is no evidence that the deadly strain of the virus has been transmitted from person to person. But experts fear that if the H5N1 virus mutates it could become easily transmitted among humans, triggering a global pandemic.
The FAO experts said efficient veterinary services and improved private/public partnership for better surveillance and control are indispensable.
Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has infected 310 people. A total of 190 have died of the disease. Some 250 million poultry have been destroyed, or have died from bird flu. Over the past two years, the international community has pledged more than $2.4 billion to deal with avian influenza.
Researchers are working on a vaccine to prevent the deadly form of the disease.
A long-term presence of the virus will require a long-term financial and political commitment from governments and the international community to finally contain and eradicate the virus.
"The socially and economically equitable adjustment of poultry production and marketing systems for safer product supply is essential to reduce infection risks. Without forgetting that efficient veterinary services and improved private public partnership for better surveillance and control activities remain indispensable," said Mr. Domonech
There is a need for intensified monitoring of virus circulation particularly in countries that are using poultry vaccines.