updated 8/25/2004 1:58:34 PM ET 2004-08-25T17:58:34

More money and global attention should be focused on bird flu in Asia to study the virus, which experts fear could mutate and trigger a human pandemic, the World Health Organization said Wednesday.

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Vietnam suffered the highest human death toll — 16 people — when the disease broke out in Asia earlier this year. Three more died here last month when the dangerous H5N1 strain struck again, bringing the total to 19.

The first outbreak also killed eight people in Thailand and devastated Asian poultry stocks, killing or prompting the cull of 100 million birds.

The WHO’s representative in Vietnam, Hans Troedsson, urged wealthier countries to fund more research to answer questions surrounding the disease.

“I think it is a bit frustrating to see how important this work (is) that needs to be done here in Vietnam, and it’s only partially funded,” he said. “Since the outbreaks have not been where a lot of high-income countries’ research institutions are, there also has been less resource allocation for it.”

Two WHO experts from the regional office in the Philippines arrived in Vietnam this week to help.

They said Vietnam and the rest of Asia are now better prepared and equipped to deal with new outbreaks — but they must remain vigilant since it could take years to stamp out the virus.

In March, Vietnam declared the communist country free of bird flu. The WHO and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization had both warned against the declaration, saying it was premature.

“I think what has happened more recently has illustrated our concerns probably were justified,” said Richard Brown, an epidemiologist and team member from the Manila office.

Brown said new concerns were raised by reports that researchers in northern China had found bird flu in pigs, which are genetically similar to humans.

China’s government said its scientists had found the virus in two pigs last year. But it insisted that blood tests on 1.1 million pigs and poultry this year showed that “we do not have the H5N1 bird flu virus in pigs.”

Earlier this year, nasal swabs from pigs in Vietnam initially tested positive for bird flu. Later, more conclusive blood tests later showed they were not infected. It wasn’t immediately clear what kind of tests the Chinese researchers or officials were referring to.

But Brown said there was cause for concern.

“Pigs have been implicated in the large outbreaks (of other diseases) that have occurred over the last century, and the theory is that pigs are susceptible both to human influenza and to avian influenza,” Brown said. “If you have a situation where a pig is simultaneously infected by both viruses, then they could possibly act as a mixing vessel.”

That could result in a mutated virus that could spread between people. Human cases in this year’s outbreak, however, are all believed to be linked to direct contact with birds.

Malaysia is now wrangling with its first outbreak, while Thailand and Indonesia also have experienced recurrences.

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