Vietnam on Thursday reported four more suspected human cases of the bird flu that has infected poultry in three Asian countries, while China banned imports of chicken and the World Health Organization warned of an increasingly urgent situation.
Vietnam already has 14 suspected human cases of avian flu, with 12 deaths. One of the four suspected new cases has died.
WHO experts and Vietnamese health ministry officials are discussing how to contain the outbreak. WHO lab tests have confirmed that the three people who died were infected with Influenza A, or the H5N1 flu strain.
Bird flu has infected millions of chickens in Vietnam, South Korea and Japan, prompting those nations to order huge slaughters at poultry farms.
A central Taiwan farm slaughtered 20,000 chickens Thursday after some of the birds tested positive for a milder strain of the flu.
“The illness posed a potential, but not an immediate threat, and we decided to take the most stringent measure,” said Lin Shih-yu, a Council of Agriculture official.
'Greater phase of urgency'
Beijing halted poultry imports from Vietnam, South Korea and Japan to the Chinese mainland, following similar measures by its Hong Kong territory and by Cambodia earlier this week.
“We are moving to a phase of greater urgency,” said Pascale Brudon, the WHO representative in Hanoi. “There was a lot of awareness about the strong need to work quickly. Vietnamese officials are taking the matter very seriously.”
The same strain of bird flu killed six people in Hong Kong in 1997, when more than 1 million chickens and ducks were slaughtered in the territory.
Officials also have said they believe there is no danger from eating properly cooked meat and eggs from infected birds.
Deadlier than SARS
Regional WHO officials have warned, however, that if human-to-human transmission occurs, it could turn avian flu into a deadlier epidemic than SARS.
On Thursday, officials at Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi said a 31-year-old man from northern Thai Binh province, 60 miles southwest of Hanoi, died after contracting what doctors suspect was bird flu.
Three of his relatives were admitted to the tropical disease unit’s isolation ward.
Vietnam is culling an estimated 1.4 million infected birds, with losses of $2.7 million to the poultry industry, agriculture officials said.
“I’ve lost everything. I’m more worried about my lost money than my health, even though I’m also afraid of contracting the disease,” said Nguyen Van Giang, 30, of Phu Nghia Tri village in southern Tien Giang province, some 45 miles southwest of Ho Chi Minh City.
Giang said a third of his 2,100 chickens have died. The provincial government is giving farmers 30 cents for each slaughtered chicken, but farmers say their market value is about $2 each.
“I’m trying where I can to keep the remaining chickens, but I’m not sure whether they can survive,” he said while incinerating his dead birds.
In Japan, officials prepared Thursday to bury 36,400 dead chickens confirmed to have the virus. The affected chickens were raised at a poultry farm in the town of Ato, about 500 miles southwest of Tokyo.