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WHO urges Asia to remain vigilant for bird flu

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- A World Health Organization official urged Asian governments Thursday not to let down their guard against bird flu, saying a new outbreak in Hong Kong shows the disease still poses a threat.

WHO Western Pacific Director Shigeru Omi said Hong Kong authorities have responded well by suspending poultry imports for 21 days and starting the slaughter of 80,000 birds after three chickens found dead at a farm Monday tested positive for the H5 virus group. Further tests are being conducted to see if they had the deadly H5N1 strain.

"This is an indication that we have to remain vigilant," Omi said on the sidelines of a WHO book launch in Malaysia. "Constant vigilance is the key."

Omi said the outbreak in Hong Kong was "not unexpected because the virus is still circulating in the world, and certainly in this part of the world."

At least 246 people have died of bird flu worldwide since 2003, according to WHO.

Twenty countries had outbreaks of the disease during the first nine months of 2008, down from 25 during the same period last year, U.N. officials have said.

Some officials worry that the public has largely lost interest because the virus has not mutated into a much-feared form that could spread easily among people. It remains hard for people to catch, with most human cases linked to contact with infected birds.

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