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    Bird flu threatens to become pandemic

    By Helen Luk

    The bird flu strain that killed 24 people in East Asia earlier this year and has resurfaced in recent weeks is now endemic to the region, and the virus could trigger a global health crisis if it goes unchecked, a study says.

    In the study published by the London-based science journal Nature, researchers led by a Hong Kong microbiologist found that domestic ducks in southern China had played a key role in the creation of the H5N1 influenza virus, while wild birds had probably helped its spread through Asia.

    Early this year, the virus raged through Asia's poultry farms and transferred to humans in cases that were mostly traced to direct contact with sick birds, killing 16 people in Vietnam and eight in Thailand.

    Health officials raised concerns about the illness mutating into a strain that could easily be passed between humans, but said there was no sign that had happened.

    New outbreaks from the same deadly strain re-emerged in eastern China and two central Thai provinces this week, and Chinese and Thai officials are slaughtering thousands of chickens to halt its spread. Vietnam also has been dealing with bird flu outbreaks in recent weeks.