05/12/2005, 00.00
ASIA
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Samples to study bird flu's threat to humans unavailable

WHO complains about affected countries' unwillingness to share samples. Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia have not sent any information in almost eight months.

London (AsiaNews) – The World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that scientific research into bird flu mutations that could threat human life is being hampered by those Asian countries affected by the H5N1 virus. The UN agency reports that researchers in these countries are refusing to send collected samples and data.

According to British science journal Nature, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have not sent WHO any significant information about the H5N1 virus for nearly eight months.

It reports that the UN agency has managed only to obtain just six viral samples from the dozens of patients who have fallen sick with this viral strain since the start of the year.

Klaus Stoehr, WHO flu program coordinator, said that many samples contained a mutated form of the virus, but it was impossible to pursue the research with limited data.

"It's as if you hear a noise in your car engine, but you keep driving, not knowing whether it's serious," he said.

Samples are one of the most important weapons in the scientific offensive on infectious disease—studying them can reveal how the agent is genetically changing.

Since 2003, the bird flu has killed 52 people in South-East Asia—36in Vietnam, 12 in Thailand and 4 in Cambodia—forcing the authorities to cull millions of birds since most people contracted the virus through infected poultry.

Experts fear that should the virus mutate and be passed onto humans, it could cause world-wide pandemic that could kill millions of people.

There many reasons behind the refusal to share samples and data with the WHO.

The affected Asian countries often lack the means to safely collect, store and transport the samples.

Local governments are also scared about releasing medical data and so tell their scientists not to share lab information results with their colleagues in other countries.

Finally, refusal to share scientific information is a common problem in medical research.

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