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Bird flu spreading un warns { January 24 2004 }

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Bird Flu Spreading, UN Warns, as Toll Hits Six
Sat 24 January, 2004 14:11

By Vissuta Pothong and Christina Toh-Pantin

BANGKOK/HANOI (Reuters) - U.N. officials said on Saturday the deadly bird flu that has jumped to humans in Vietnam and Thailand was spreading -- a warning grimly underlined by confirmation of a sixth death from the disease.

Experts fear the avian virus could set off an epidemic worse than SARS, another disease which crossed from animals to humans, killed 800 people and frightened the world last year.

"There's no denying the disease is spreading," Anton Rychener, Vietnam representative for the Food and Agriculture Organization, a U.N. body, told Reuters.

The World Health Organization said a 13-year-old Vietnamese boy had died on Thursday from the H5N1 strain of avian flu, and that an eight-year-old girl had tested positive for the virus.

She was critically ill in Ho Chi Minh City, the first confirmed cases of bird flu in southern Vietnam since four children and one adult died in the country's north.

In Thailand, a chicken butcher, one of six Thais being tested for the disease, is believed to have died of pneumonia on Friday, but more tests were being done, officials said.

The WHO has said the near-simultaneous bird flu outbreaks in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and now Thailand and Cambodia were "historically unprecedented."

Thailand will host a meeting on Wednesday of senior health and agriculture officials from Asian countries and international agencies fighting the outbreak.

Thailand denied on Saturday it had tried to cover up an outbreak of bird flu, saying it had had suspicions for weeks but had only known for certain when tests confirmed the disease.

After weeks of declaring the country free of bird flu, the government confirmed on Friday that two boys, aged six and seven, had contracted the highly infectious virus.

"The government never realized it was avian influenza before yesterday, but it was suspecting that it might be. That's why some measures in extraordinary degrees had been put in place," said Jakrapob Penkair, the government's chief spokesman.

Critics have accused the Thai government of trying to hide the outbreak by blaming the deaths of tens of thousands of chickens since November on poultry cholera.

"The government's efforts to sweep the problem under the carpet has exploded in its face, leaving the poultry industry in tatters and the very safety of the public in jeopardy," the Bangkok Post newspaper said in an editorial on Saturday.


The bird flu outbreak threatens to devastate the Thai chicken industry, the world's fourth largest with exports worth $1.5 billion annually and employing hundreds of thousands of people.

The European Union, the number two buyer of Thai chicken, and Japan, Thailand's biggest customer, has banned imports of Thai chicken. So too have Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Bangladesh and South Korea.

With 81,000 families dependent on 30,000 poultry farms and related industries such as feed, analysts say the immediate impact of bird flu jumping to humans will be largely economic.

Thailand has culled more than seven million chickens in 24 of 76 provinces so far, with authorities now focusing their efforts on the hardest-hit province, Suphan Buri, northwest of Bangkok.

Chickens on more than 300 farms in Suphan Buri have been killed and authorities plan to slaughter birds on another 200 farms by the end of Sunday, the ITV television network said.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who says the import bans will have a "trivial" impact on exports, tried to play down the controversy over his government's handling of the crisis.

"There has been a lot of talk that the government had tried to cover up cases of the bird flu," he said in his weekly radio address on Saturday.

"We had been trying to solve the problem, but we would not have spoken out before the lab tests came out. Otherwise it would have caused panic," said Thaksin, who ate a chicken lunch with his cabinet on Tuesday to soothe public safety fears.

But on the busy streets of Bangkok, people were shunning barbecued chicken, chicken satays and soups.

"I have been selling food for over 30 years, and nothing has ever happened like this. People are just avoiding eating chicken meat," said food-stall owner Lek Saetung.

(Additional reporting by Nopporn Wong-Anan)

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