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In the wake of yet another avian influenza death in Thailand, the World Health Organization urged countries with flu vaccine production capacity and their manufacturers to speed up work on trial vaccines against the highly deadly H5N1 virus.
"Significant efforts are needed to expedite vaccine development," the Geneva-based organization warned Monday as it announced this year's 31st confirmed bird flu fatality, a nine-year-old girl from Thailand's Phetchabun province.
"We would certainly like to see the development of the vaccine much further along at this time," WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said when asked if the agency believes work on an H5N1 vaccine to protect against a potential influenza pandemic is going too slowly.
"We understand that companies are driven, at least in part, by market forces and that right now, there's not the market to motivate companies. (But) we believe that there could be more intensive efforts, more intensive pandemic preparedness efforts."
WHO collaborating laboratories in the United States and Britain raced to produce what's called a viral seed for an H5N1 vaccine following this year's first wave of human cases in Thailand and Vietnam in January and February.
Flu vaccine - if it can be produced, and produced in adequate amounts - will be the only significant weapon the world will have should the H5N1 virus acquire the capacity to transmit easily and in a sustained fashion among people.
Asia's bird flu epidemic, which experts fear could spawn a human pandemic, has claimed its 31st victim, a nine-year-old Thai girl who had contact with infected chickens at home.
She died on Sunday night, soon after being confirmed as having the H5N1 bird flu virus nearly a month after falling ill, Health Ministry spokeswoman Nitaya Chanruang Mahabhol told Reuters.
"The girl was in poor condition before being sent to the hospital," Nitaya said yesterday of the 11th Thai to die of bird flu since the virus swept through much of Asia early this year. It has also killed 20 Vietnamese.
The government, spurred into a frenzy of action by Thailand's first probable human-to-human transmission of the virus last week, is determined no one else will linger untested and untreated for so long.
Volunteers would inspect every village in the country and put anyone showing flu-like symptoms on the government's bird flu watch list, Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan told reporters.
So far, 85 patients in 22 of Thailand's 76 provinces are waiting for H5N1 test results after being sent to hospital with flu-like symptoms, a ministry statement said.