Indonesia Bird Flu
Firdia Lisnawati  /  AP
An agriculture ministry official gives vaccination to a chicken during a campaign against bird flu in Badung on the island of Bali, Indonesia. Indonesia's human death toll from bird flu has reached 109, accounting for nearly half of the 241 recorded fatalities worldwide.
updated 6/5/2008 11:05:15 AM ET 2008-06-05T15:05:15

A 15-year-old girl died of bird flu last month, becoming Indonesia's 109th victim, but the government decided to keep the news quiet. It is part of a new policy aimed at improving the image of the nation hardest hit by the disease.

Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said Thursday she will no longer announce deaths immediately after they are confirmed. But she promised to make the information available on a regular basis eventually, several cases at a time.

"How does it help us to announce these deaths?" she said after confirming that the girl from southern Jakarta tested positive on May 13 and died one day later. "We want to focus now on positive steps and achievements made by the government in fighting bird flu."

Indonesia's decision could aggravate the World Health Organization, which waits to update its official tally of Indonesia's bird flu deaths until after they are formally announced by the government. The toll on its Web site stood at 108 on Thursday — accounting for nearly half the 241 recorded fatalities worldwide.

The country's health minister has clashed with WHO over bird flu before.

Supari stopped sharing bird flu samples with the global body in January 2007 after learning that some coveted data about the virus was being kept in a private database at a U.S. government laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and made accessible to only a handful of researchers.

She worried that pharmaceutical companies would use her country's viruses to make vaccines that were ultimately unaffordable for developing countries. She has called for the creation of a global stockpile of lifesaving drugs, price tiering or other multinational benefit-sharing programs.

At present, all of Indonesia's virus samples are kept at a Health Ministry laboratory. DNA sequencing — used for risk assessment, diagnosis and to signal possible mutations — is carried out by scientists at the nearby Eijkman Institute.

"We have the capability to do this ourselves," Supari said.

So far, the virus remains hard for people to catch. Most of the world's 388 recorded human cases fell ill after contact with infected birds. But scientists have been closely monitoring the H5N1 virus, fearing it could potentially mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, possibly sparking a pandemic.

Until recently, Indonesia's government announced bird flu deaths by e-mail and provided an almost 24-hour information center for confirmations.

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It gradually abandoned that practice several months ago, often burying news of deaths on the ministry's Web site.

The latest policy shift means no posting will be made until deaths have already been reported in the media, said Supari, who wants the focus now to be on improvements made in fighting the H5N1 virus nationwide.

She said only 18 people have been infected in the first six months of 2008, compared to 27 during the same period in 2007 and 35 in 2006 — something she attributed to improved surveillance and public awareness.

But the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization issued a critical statement in March, saying Indonesia's efforts to control the disease in poultry are failing. The H5N1 virus is entrenched in 31 of the country's 33 provinces and will continue to kill humans until it can be controlled in birds, it said.

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