- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 21, 2004

BANGKOK — Thai authorities yesterday mopped up four new outbreaks of bird flu, while the World Health Organization (WHO) played down fears that the discovery of the virus in cats here poses a risk to humans.

The extent of the bird-flu outbreak, which has hit 10 Asian nations and the Canadian province of British Columbia, has also spread to the United States, with Texas now the fourth state to be hit with a weaker strain.

Canadian authorities said five persons on the farm in British Columbia where another milder virus was discovered have fallen ill with flulike symptoms, but that there was no cause for concern because the strain is mostly harmless.

However, Thailand is among eight regional countries battling the deadly H5N1 variety of bird flu, which has killed seven persons here and 15 in Vietnam.

Thai scientists Friday said that the highly pathogenic strain had been detected in a leopard, a tiger and two domestic cats, raising fears the disease could be circulating among other mammals.

But the WHO said that the presence of bird flu in the cat family, while unprecedented, was not likely to increase the risk of infection in humans or affect the evolution of the outbreak.

“While conclusions are premature, infection in cats is not considered likely to enhance the present risks to human health,” it said.

The health agency has warned that H5N1 could kill millions around the globe if it combined with a human influenza virus to create a new highly contagious strain transmissible among humans.

That prospect could become more likely if mammals like pigs are found to carry H5N1, as experts say they are an ideal “mixing vessel” in which viruses swap genes, become more lethal or contagious and then leap to humans.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Agency said it had not verified the tests on the cats, carried out by a leading Thai university, and that the reports required “more careful scientific analysis.”

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has led campaigns to reassure the public that cooked chicken is safe to eat, noted that the cats were infected by eating birds from one of the farms hit by the virus.

“Bird flu would not have been transmitted to different animal species if they had not eaten raw, infected chickens, and also the virus is not being transmitted among humans so there is no need to panic,” he said.

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