Page last updated at 00:31 GMT, Friday, 5 January 2007

WHO chief issues bird flu warning

Margaret Chan
Margaret Chan has vowed to work hard to combat the bird flu threat

The new chief of the World Health Organization has taken office, warning that bird flu remains a global threat.

Margaret Chan, a bird flu expert from Hong Kong, is the first Chinese citizen to become the head of a UN agency.

She said reports of bird flu had started to surface in recent weeks after a lull and that the danger was particularly severe in poor countries.

Dr Chan also identified health care in Africa, particularly women's health, as a priority for her organisation.

Her predecessor as WHO chief, South Korea's Lee Jong-Wook, died suddenly in office last year.

Fears for Africa

Dr Chan said the number of bird flu cases had been increasing in recent weeks.

The WHO is particularly concerned about an outbreak on a poultry farm in Vietnam, the first in that country in almost a year.

The next pandemic, if it occurs, will be very devastating... we are very concerned of the likelihood of a pandemic
Dr Chan

Dr Chan pledged to take a hard line on countries that do not comply with requirements to carry out checks against bird flu or hinder global efforts to develop vaccines.

Her Chinese origin, she said, would help her in any dealing with the authorities in China, the country where the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu first emerged.

"I think of all people I would be in a better position to work with the Chinese government," she told the BBC.

Dr Chan also warned of the danger of a new flu pandemic, particularly if it took hold in countries with poor healthcare, where people were already affected by diseases such as HIV/Aids.

"The next pandemic, if it occurs, will be very devastating... we are very concerned of the likelihood of a pandemic," she said.

"I want my leadership to be judged by the impact of our work on the health of two populations: women and the people of Africa," Dr Chan said on Thursday.

Africa is struggling under the burden of Aids, conflict and poverty and a flu pandemic in such conditions would be catastrophic, the BBC's Geneva correspondent Imogen Foulkes says.

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