updated 3/16/2004 9:32:29 AM ET 2004-03-16T14:32:29

China declared victory Tuesday in its fight against bird flu, saying it had “stamped out” all of its known cases, while a factory worker in Thailand became Asia’s 23rd victim of the virus.

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Japan, meanwhile, redoubled efforts against its still-simmering outbreak with new penalties for farmers who fail to report cases.

Since the outbreak emerged in December, eight Asian countries have battled a severe form of the virus that left about 100 million chickens dead, either from the illness or destroyed under orders of the government.

The virus has jumped to humans in the two hardest-hit countries, Vietnam and Thailand, killing a total of 23 people and raising fears of a health crisis that would buffet the region’s economy more severely than last year’s SARS outbreak.

Both Vietnam and Thailand have said in the past two weeks that their outbreaks are coming under control, and bird flu’s effects on the region’s travel industry have paled compared with last year’s bout with severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Early fears among World Health Organization officials that the H5N1 bird flu virus could mix with a human strain and spark the next deadly global pandemic have not been borne. Highly contagious among birds, the virus has not proven to be easily transferrable between humans.

Human toll
But the disease has nonetheless taken its toll on people, with most cases traced to direct contact with sick birds.

The latest victim was a 39-year-old woman who was sickened in Thailand on March 1. The factory worker likely was infected by chickens at a neighbor’s house, where 20 birds had died of avian influenza, Thai officials said. She died Friday but her death was not announced until Tuesday.

China’s declaration Tuesday that it was now free of bird flu was the latest indication that the region might be returning to normal, although international health officials have warned it could take years to completely stamp out the virus.

Chinese officials lifted quarantines in the last of two of its 16 regions affected by the disease.

Japan’s bird flu problems were continuing, with the latest case confirmed in a crow over the weekend.

On Tuesday, the Japanese Cabinet boosted penalties against chicken farmers who cover up evidence of infection among their flocks.

The move comes after a farmer in western Japan was accused of covering up mysterious deaths of thousands of infected chickens at his farm. Under the threat of prosecution, the farmer and his wife committed suicide last week.

The Asahi newspaper reported that farmers would face prison terms of up to three years and fines of up to $9,000 for not reporting such chicken deaths.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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