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NZ at most bird flu risk from travellers, WHO says

By Staff
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WELLINGTON, Feb 27 (Reuters) Overseas travellers would be the most likely cause of an outbreak of the deadly H5N1 bird flu in New Zealand, a senior World Health Organisation (WHO) official said today.

Shigeru Omi, WHO's Western Pacific regional director, said he doubted any human pandemic of the disease would begin in New Zealand and that its arrival in the South Pacific country from migratory birds was ''not so likely''.

''It is very unlikely the human pandemic will start in New Zealand,'' Omi told reporters at a news conference in Wellington.

''If it occurs in some country in Asia then it is possible the virus will be carried by travellers to New Zealand.'' ''I don't think I can say nil,'' he added when asked of the chances of the disease being brought to New Zealand by birds.

''But it's not so likely''.

Bird flu remains essentially an animal disease but has killed at least 92 people since 2003, spreading from Asia to the Middle East and reaching Europe this year with wild bird migrations.

Experts fear it is only a matter of time before it mutates into a form that can be easily passed between humans, sparking a pandemic in which millions could die.

Omi said the key to halting any pandemic would be early detection, which New Zealand seemed well equipped to do.

''There is a two to three week window of opportunities and that is when a very aggressive plan has to take place with provision of anti-viral drugs and restriction of movement,'' he said. ''Then you may be able to prevent the further spread.

''Given the infrastructure, size of the country and level of commitment over the country then, if New Zealand cannot contain it, then I do not think many other countries will be able to.'' New Zealand's Health Minister Pete Hodgson said the country's public health system was focusing on human detection as part of its normal scrutiny of people showing influenza symptoms in the run up to the winter months.

''As far as the surveillance with avian influenza, there does not need to be an army of people looking at dead ducks,'' said Hodgson.

''The chance of it occuring in migratory birds in New Zealand is slim. (So) our surveillance is around human cases and through normal influenza monitoring,'' he said REUTERS CH RAI1100

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