BEIJING (Reuters) - World health experts said they expected to see more human bird flu infections in China, even as the U.S. Congress stalled funding of President George W. Bush's plan to cope with a pandemic.
China confirmed its first human deaths from the H5N1 avian flu virus, saying one person in Anhui province had died and another in Hunan province was suspected of having been killed by the H5N1 strain. A second person diagnosed with bird flu in Hunan had recovered.
World Health Organization officials said the development was not unexpected and did not necessarily mean a human pandemic was about to break out.
"In view of the size of the country, and the size of its bird and human population, we are not surprised," World Health Organisation Director General Lee Jong-Wook told a news conference in Rome.
"We expect there will be more poultry outbreaks to come," Henk Bekedam, WHO's chief official in Beijing, told reporters, noting that the H5N1 virus that causes bird flu flourishes in autumn and winter months.
"As long as there are poultry outbreaks, people will be exposed to the virus and we can expect that people might get infected."
Indonesia also announced two more deaths on Thursday, bringing the total to seven, the Health Ministry said Thursday. Four others have survived.
WHO has urged all countries to come up with plans for tackling a pandemic of bird flu, but U.S. efforts stalled on Thursday when Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives refused to approve funding for Bush's $7.1 billion plan.
After days of intensive talks between the House and Senate, negotiators dropped a plan for $8 billion in funds that Democrats pushed through the Senate last month.
Conservative Republicans in the House insisted that an emergency U.S. effort to stockpile vaccines and anti-viral drugs that could be effective against the deadly flu would have to be paid for by cutting other government programs.
Republican leaders in the House said that instead of attaching the bird flu money to a health and labor spending bill moving through Congress, they would try separate legislation later this year or early next year.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu has become entrenched in flocks of poultry in several Asian countries. Chinese officials battling several outbreaks have promised to vaccinate billions of chickens to try to control its spread.
The virus cannot yet easily infect people, but it has sickened 130 people in five countries in Asia, killing 67 since late 2003.
The fear is that it will acquire the ability to pass from person to person, causing a pandemic that could kill millions.
China gave blanket coverage to its first human cases of bird flu Thursday. Newspapers carried pictures of distraught relatives of the victims, a contrast to two years ago when China tried to cover up outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS.
SARS spread as far afield as Toronto, carried by airline passengers, and sickened 8,000 people globally, killing 800, before it was contained.
"In 2003, we defeated SARS. That will inspire us to victory over bird flu," Xinhua news agency quoted Premier Wen Jiabao as saying.
"China has been a model of how we hope countries will react to a situation like this in the future," WHO spokeswoman Maria Cheng told Reuters in Geneva.
"They had a very uncertain situation but went ahead with increased transparency. That is exactly the kind of mentality we need if we are going to detect a pandemic in the early stages," Cheng said.
Analysts are trying to find opportunities for investors if a pandemic emerges.
Likely losers in a pandemic would include airlines, hotels, insurers and luxury goods makers, while potential winners include drug makers, hospital chains and home entertainment companies, according to a global Citigroup study released on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Ade Rina in Jakarta, Maggie Fox and Richard Cowan in Washington, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Kim Coghill in Hong Kong, Nick Zieminski in New York and Judy Hua in Beijing)
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