Health experts at Beijing bird flu workshop urge pandemic readiness

Chinese and international health experts wrapped up a workshop Tuesday on the pressing need for a vaccine against a future strain of bird flu that could pass easily between humans, a WHO spokeswoman said.

"We've been ringing the bells about a possible pandemic for the last three years," said Joanna Brent, spokeswoman for the World Health Organization in Beijing. "It's not easily transmittable between people now but we have to prepare for the fact that that could change."

The H5N1 virus has prompted the slaughter of millions of birds across Asia since late 2003, and caused the deaths of at least 163 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. People are infected through close contact with birds but experts fear the virus could mutate into a strain that can pass between humans, sparking a worldwide pandemic.

"The pandemic threat of avian influenza has not gone away," Dr. Henk Bekedam, WHO's China Representative, told the workshop, according to a transcript provided by his organization. "Being prepared is one of our only defenses against a possible pandemic."

Brent said the experts talked about the different logistical, practical and technical challenges to creating and delivering a vaccine, but gave no specific details, reports AP.

Health News, the official newspaper of the Chinese Ministry of Health said Tuesday in a report on its Web site that experts at the workshop stressed that the virus was "continuing to rapidly mutate" and had the "potential for mass transmission."

"People cannot slacken off in their control efforts," the report said.

Brent said the workshop was focused on preparedness and "was not in response to some new development or in response to an increased threat to humans."

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