Dr Shigeru Omi, the World Health Organization’s Western Pacific regional director, said that governments must take rapid action to stop bird flu spreading if it mutated into a form that was highly contagious among humans. The impact of bird flu could be "enormous, and certainly much greater than Sars" - the unrelated Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed almost 800 people in 2003.
Mass epidemics have occurred every 20-30 years, and it has been almost 40 years since the last one happened.
The virus has killed 45 people - 32 Vietnamese, 12 Thais and one Cambodian - in cases largely traced to contact with sick birds. It is estimated that bird flu kills three of every four people it infects, although it has so far not been very virulent and has not infected people easily.
However, experts warn that this situation could change easily, with a small variation or mutation in the virus allowing it to spread like the common cold, moving quickly and easily between cities, provinces, countries and continents.
"The longer the virus is circulating in animals, including chickens and ducks, the greater the risk of human cases, and consequently the higher the risk of a pandemic virus emerging through genetic changes in the virus," - Dr Omi said.
The three-day regional conference is being held near the Mekong Delta, where the latest bird flu outbreaks happened this year. It has brought together scientists and representatives from more than two dozen countries.
Delegates were expected to discuss ways in which to increase cooperation and information about bird flu, while bird flu-affected countries were also expected to make requests for technical and financial assistance when the conference ends on Friday.
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