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Article Released Thu-9th-June-2005 13:00 GMT
Contact: Ruth Institution: Nature Publishing Group
 Limited samples hamper efforts to monitor bird flu

Nature reveals that from the dozens of patients who caught the deadly H5N1 strain this year, the WHO has managed to obtain just six samples.

Tracking genetic changes in bird-flu viruses is vital for early warning of a human pandemic. But Nature has discovered that it is nearly eight months since the influenza programme of the World Health Organization (WHO) last saw sequence analysis data on isolates from infected poultry in Asia. A news article in this week's issue also reveals that from the dozens of patients who caught the deadly H5N1 strain this year, the WHO has managed to obtain just six samples.

Affected countries are failing, or refusing, to share their human samples with the WHO. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) set up a network of labs to collect animal samples last year, but it too has not received any for months.
Since the current outbreak of avian influenza began 18 months ago, the total number of human cases has risen to 89, and 52 of these people have died. The most recent case was announced by the Ministry of Health in Cambodia on 5 May.

Several of the six H5N1 isolates contain a mutated form of the virus, but with so few samples to work on, it is impossible to judge how worried to be, says Klaus Stohr, coordinator of the WHO's flu programme. "It's as if you hear a noise in your car engine, but you keep driving, not knowing whether it's serious."

Some countries don't have the resources to collect, conserve and securely transport such samples, but they may also be reluctant to cede control over data and allow unvetted announcements in the international press.

Michael Perdue at the WHO flu programme complains that the FAO "hasn't been sharing" the data it does have, so the WHO solicited samples directly when it met with representatives of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos last week. Vietnam has recently agreed to ship a large number of poultry samples direct to the WHO flu centre at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Keywords associated to this article: bird-flu, avian flu, H5N1
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