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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 09:02 GMT 10:02 UK
Bird flu experts travel to Asia
Chickens
A contingency plan for bird flu is to be announced
British scientists are to travel to South East Asia to investigate how an outbreak of deadly bird flu could be tackled in the future.

Experts from the Medical Research Council (MRC) will visit the region where the virus has claimed 60 lives.

The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, warned a bird flu pandemic could kill 50,000 people in the UK.

He said a deadly outbreak would come when bird flu mutated with human flu but was unlikely to happen this winter.

Meanwhile, a laboratory at Weybridge has confirmed Romania has another cluster of bird flu - this time in 12 swans that died in fish ponds near the village of Maliuc, in the Danube Delta.

It has yet to confirm whether the strain is the lethal H5NI.

Also, the European Commission ordered urgent tests on dead birds found in Croatia.

Meanwhile, the deadly H5N1 virus has been discovered in sparrows in Thailand.

New vaccine

Scientists from the MRC, in a team led by Professor Colin Blakemore, are expected to visit China, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

QUICK GUIDE

Their findings on how to tackle an outbreak of the virus will be presented to an international conference in London in December.

The organisation, which discovered the flu virus in 1933, is considered a world leader in the field.

Sir Liam told the BBC that bird flu would probably kill about 50,000 people in the UK and a death toll of 750,000 was "not impossible".

"In a normal winter flu year... flu actually kills in excess of 12,000 people," he said.

But the epicentre of any new strain was likely to be in East Asia, Sir Liam added.

The UK has so far stockpiled 2.5m doses of anti-viral drugs - and may restrict travel if there is an outbreak.

On Saturday, UK tests confirmed a case in Romania of a strain of bird flu which is potentially deadly to humans, sparking fears avian flu could spread to the UK through migrating birds.

Sir Liam said it was "less likely" that any new flu strain would come this year.

'Constant vigilance'

However he said that if the flu first emerged in another part of the world it would give UK scientists time to try to create an effective vaccine against the virus before it arrived in the UK.

He said a contingency plan was being released on Thursday, outlining the steps the government would take in the event of an outbreak.

HAVE YOUR SAY
There is absolutely no need for panic
Chief executive of the Medical Research Council Professor Colin Blakemore

Professor Blakemore said it was "almost certain" that avian flu would reach the UK.

"How we deal with it will depend on how well we are preparing now."

He said international co-ordination was essential to combat the spread of bird flu.

"It is very important that viruses should be identified as quickly as possible as new strains emerge.

"That is crucial in understanding how the disease might spread, both amongst birds and human beings.

"It is also important for the development of vaccines and the development of treatments.

"It's a matter of constant vigilance. There is absolutely no need for panic."

UK doctors said the public appeared calm about the situation, but that more eligible people had been coming forward for their regular annual flu jab, which was good news.

GP fears

Dr Michael Dixon, Devon GP and chairman of the NHS Alliance, said: "We are seeing a much greater awareness about flu in general. I suspect that is a knock-on effect from the talk about the avian flu."

The influenza vaccine does not protect against bird flu. It is free and recommended for those over 65s and people with health problems such as chronic heart or chest conditions, asthma, diabetes or kidney disease.

The Department of Health said it would be publishing avian flu advice for GPs on its website on Thursday.

Dr Tim Ringrose from the doctors' website Doctors.net.uk said some GPs were concerned about knowing what to tell patients.

"GPs want to have the most up-to-date information so they can reassure patients," he said.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
Find out what measures are being taken to prevent bird flu



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