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WHO confirms fifth bird flu death

/ Source: The Associated Press

An 8-year-old girl has become the fifth confirmed death from bird flu in Vietnam, the World Health Organization said Monday as Asia went on alert against the chicken-borne virus.

Although some governments fretted and maintained tough disease controls, many consumers seemed unconcerned and bought up big on poultry ahead of Chinese New Year celebrations that start Thursday.

Health officials believe patients contract the illness, also known as avian flu, through contact with the droppings of sick birds.

Eating properly cooked chicken is not believed to pose a risk.

Even so, chicken farms across Asia have been ravaged — millions of fowl have died of infection or have been slaughtered as a precaution.

No person-to-person spread

So far, there has been no evidence of person-to-person transmission. But its spread, along with the re-emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS — with three recent cases confirmed in China — has raised Asia’s winter health fears.

“We noticed a rapid deterioration in the patient after the first symptoms on Jan. 11,” Dietz said. “By Jan. 17, this young girl was dead. This is a pretty aggressive form of disease.”

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has hit Vietnam, South Korea and Japan. A milder strain has been detected in Taiwan, which has killed some 50,000 chickens in the last week.

Vietnam is the only country to report human cases of the avian influenza — at least 18 suspected cases and 13 deaths possibly linked to the disease. The WHO has sent experts to Vietnam, where some 2 million chicken have died of infection or been slaughtered as a precaution.

The fear of bird flu contamination has led some countries to impose bans on some chicken imports.

In Japan and Hong Kong, sales of chicken have either kept pace with previous years or even shown increases.

The head of Hong Kong Poultry Wholesalers Association, Tsui Ming-tuen, said Monday the territory’s business is thriving, with sales up 20 percent to 30 percent from the same time last year.

Still eating chicken

Hong Kong retailers are buying hundreds of thousands of chickens daily in this week’s run-up to the Chinese New Year, a traditional time for family feasts, Tsui said.

In Taipei, one restaurateur at a back-alley eatery said business has not been affected.

“We sell the same volume of chicken these days. Customers have no fear because they noticed that chickens struck with the flu have been destroyed,” Chu Cheng-teh said, as he was busy stirring slices of chicken breasts and legs on a large grill.

Thailand, where bird flu has not been detected, is one of the few countries where chicken sales have dropped.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sought to ease fears about the flu, ordering chicken for the lunch menu of his weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.

Still, consumers at a major discount retailer in Thailand, preparing for feasts to celebrate the Lunar New Year this week, have shunned chicken in favor of fish and pork, a Thai-language newspaper reported Monday.

Street vendors and small restaurants in downtown Bangkok also reported that chicken sales have dived since late last week.

The H5N1 flu strain was first reported in humans in 1997 in Hong Kong, where 18 people were infected and six died. It cropped up again in Hong Kong last year, infecting two people and killing one of them.

A different strain was reported in the Netherlands in 2003, killing a veterinarian and infecting dozens of people.