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WHO Expects Human Cases of Bird Flu to Rise in China

The World Health Organization reports it expects the number of cases of bird flu in humans to rise in China. But, it says it does not believe this increases the threat of a human influenza pandemic, with the potential to kill millions, breaking out there.

The World Health Organization says there is a lot of contact between humans and chickens in China. And, it says it would not be surprised to see more scattered human cases of avian flu in China in the future.

WHO spokeswoman, Maria Cheng, says WHO is only notified of human cases of bird flu when people are severely ill. So, she says, it is possible that many mild cases of the disease have not been detected in China, or elsewhere in South Asia.

"We have not detected cases of avian influenza in people in which the virus appears to be changing, which is the most important thing we are looking for," she said. "It is not so much these trends of numbers going up by a few cases. What we are more interested in is whether or not the virus appears to be changing, whether it is becoming a form that is more transmissible among people. And, so far, we have not seen that. So, we are confident that that has not happened yet."

On Wednesday, China announced its first human cases of bird flu. A woman in eastern Anhui province died from the deadly H5N1 avian flu strain. A 12-year-old girl in southern Hunan is suspected of having died from the disease last month. Her nine-year old brother, who fell ill, has recovered.

China is the fifth country to report deaths from H5N1. Fears are growing that the virus could trigger a human influenza pandemic. Public health experts agree a pandemic is inevitable. The World Health Organization says as many as seven and one half million people could die during an outbreak.

Ms. Cheng says the Chinese government is to be commended for coming forward with this information. She notes the government's transparency is in marked contrast with its behavior two years ago, when it tried to keep the SARS outbreak hidden during the early stages. She says the only hope of detecting a new strain of avian flu is for countries to be honest about what is happening within their borders.

"We certainly have seen a large level of political commitment from the central government which has given Chinese authorities the power to act and to increase surveillance across the country," she said. "And, certainly with the number of outbreaks that they are reporting, it is important that we have a good surveillance of this disease in animals and in humans. So, we have seen surveillance be reinforced across the country to look for any suspicious or unusual clusters of disease, which is essentially how these cases were picked up."

Indonesia has announced two more deaths from bird flu. WHO says this brings the number of deaths to 67 and number of people infected with avian flu in Asia to 130 since late 2003.