Asia Aims To Clip Bird Flu Spread

A Chinese vendor selects a live chicken for her customer at a market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Jan. 28, 2004. The Malaysian health minister said Malaysia had no reports of avian influenza, the H5N1 virus known as bird flu, either among poultry or humans.
Two sisters in Vietnam became the latest victims of Asia's bird flu crisis Wednesday, as ministers from across the region convened an emergency meeting with international health experts to head off what one said was a potential global pandemic.

The bird flu has raced through Asia's poultry farms and killed at least 10 people in as many countries.

Bangkok — the site of the meeting — was itself declared a "danger zone" after the virus was detected in a fighting cock and other fowl around the sprawling metropolis, Thai officials said.

Fending off accusations that it initially tried to cover up the emergency to protect its lucrative poultry export sector, Thailand said it would fire bureaucrats who allegedly failed to report the true extent of the disease that has now been detected in about one-third of its provinces.

The World Health Organization stressed that mass slaughter of infected birds is considered a key to controlling the epidemic's spread. However, there was no unanimous declaration of action.

Earlier, the WHO's regional director Shigeru Omi warned, "there's always potential for this kind of outbreak to result in serious global pandemic, which involves not hundreds, but could kill millions of people globally."

Across Asia, millions of chickens and ducks have been killed — by the disease or in government-ordered culls aimed at containing it — and participants agreed during their three-hour meeting that urgent action was needed.

Not only does avian influenza pose a serious public health threat, said Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, it could also devastate economies.

The bird flu virus has jumped to people in Vietnam, where eight people have died, and Thailand, which has had two fatalities. Most cases have been traced to direct contact with sick birds and many victims have been young children.

In a joint statement, the ministers and experts pledged to step up surveillance of the virus across Asia and to set up a regional veterinary network.

They vowed to study ways to fight animal disease outbreaks, and to develop low-cost test kits, vaccination and anti-viral drugs, though most agreed that culling was among the best way to combat bird flu.

Asians are shunning chicken, a favored dish, in a disaster for the region's poultry industry and a health scare comparable to last year's global outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. But the World Health Organization says there's still time to prevent the virus from taking root in the human population.

"We have a window of opportunity to deal with this disease," said Dr. Klaus Stohr, project leader for influenza surveillance and scientific groups at the World Health Organization.

Although there has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission in the latest outbreak, health officials are concerned the virus might mix with a regular human influenza strain to create a mutant form that could trigger the next human flu pandemic.

Officials also have said there are no indications so far that bird flu is spreading to people who eat properly cleaned and cooked poultry products, but governments worldwide have slapped import bans on poultry from countries affected with bird flu.

The European Union banned imports from Thailand last week. Kuwait, Jordan and Sri Lanka on Tuesday banned poultry imports from several affected countries.

Wednesday's conference in Bangkok drew representatives from nearly a dozen governments, including China, the European Union and the United States.

Food and Agriculture Organization spokesman Diderik de Vleeschauwer said the U.N. agency was advising three key strategies at the meeting: rapid slaughter of inflected flocks, modernization of poultry farming and studies on how to detect outbreak earlier.

"We think there is a need for rethinking livestock development in the region," de Vleeschauwer said. "Live animal markets should be reviewed, and eventually restricted."

The World Health Organization said it would discuss the need for financial and technical help in the slaughter of infected birds and advise countries on how they can tighten up protection measures for people involved in the culling.

Thai authorities on Friday reversed weeks of government denials that bird flu had reached the kingdom, and critics have alleged that officials sought to keep the outbreak quiet to protect poultry exports.

China and Laos reported their first cases of bird flu in poultry on Tuesday, with Beijing saying there were several suspected cases among ducks — with one of the cases confirmed — in the southern region of Guangxi, bordering Vietnam.

Officials in the Philippines said Wednesday they are warning people to stay clear of migratory birds that traditionally flock to the Philippines during winter.

WHO officials are still investigating whether the current virulent strain of bird flu could have been spread by migratory birds, accounting for its rapid spread through Asia, or whether the outbreaks are coincidental.

However, Philip Round, a bird expert at Mahidol University in Bangkok, said he doubts that migratory birds are to blame for spreading the disease.

"There are lots of migratory birds that come down from Siberia, but most of them eat insects and live in forests or coastal wetlands," he said. "Politicians have lost a lot of face and they are looking for a scapegoat. It's much more likely that it originated in the huge poultry population ... and spread through the crowded conditions under which birds are kept.

Cambodia, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan also have suffered outbreaks. However, the virus that has killed flocks in Pakistan and Taiwan is a different, milder strain of avian flu, not the same kind that's a threat to people.