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Bird flu spreading again in Asia

An Indonesian hospital was overwhelmed with patients suffering bird flu symptoms as the disease spread further in Vietnam and Thailand reported its first case in poultry in six months.
Officials and residents cull poultry in a residential area in Jakarta
Officials and residents cull poultry in a residential area in Jakarta on January 15. A recent spurt of infections of the H5N1 virus has alarmed officials.Reuters
/ Source: Reuters

An Indonesian hospital was on Monday overwhelmed with patients suffering bird flu symptoms as the disease spread further in Vietnam and Thailand reported its first case in poultry in six months.

But farm ministry officials in Japan said there was no evidence of the disease spreading there following confirmation at the weekend of a bird flu outbreak at a poultry farm in the southwest in which 3,800 chickens died.

A recent spurt of infections of the H5N1 bird flu virus, which re-emerged in Asia in late 2003, has alarmed health officials.

Four Indonesians have already died this year after a six-week lull in cases, taking the number of human deaths from bird flu in the country to 61, the highest in the world.

At Jakarta’s Persahabatan hospital, where doctors were treating 9 people with bird flu symptoms, including a 5-year-old girl in intensive care, its isolation wards were overwhelmed.

“If we get more patients, we will send them to Sulianti Saroso,” Muchtar Ichsan, the head of the bird flu ward, told Reuters, referring the country’s main bird flu treatment center in North Jakarta.

The patients included the son and husband of a woman who died of bird flu last week. The 18-year-old son has been confirmed to have the disease, signaling a cluster case, although tests so far on the husband show he does not have the virus.

U.S. threat
An infectious disease expert at John Hopkins University said a bird flu pandemic remains a threat that the U.S. health care system must take seriously despite less frequent media coverage and the absence so far of human cases in the United States.

John Bartlett of John Hopkins University said the decentralized U.S. health system will make it more difficult to get ready for a possible human pandemic of H5N1 avian virus — or anything else.

He denied the threat from bird flu has been overstated by the media.

“The number of cases in 2006 was more than it was in 2005, which is more than it was in 2004 ... so it continues to go up in people,” he said in an interview.

The H5N1 virus is steadily changing and could at any time acquire the changes it needs to be easily transmitted from human to human. It would then spark a pandemic that could kill millions within months.

Bird flu as an issue in the United States suffered from ”press fatigue” in the absence of new things to say about the health threat, he said.

Adding to regional worries in Asia, a senior Thai agriculture official said on Monday that 1,900 ducks had been culled in the northern province of Phitsanulok after some of the birds had tested positive for H5N1.

The case is Thailand’s first in birds since last July. The last human death — the country’s 17th — occurred in August.

Experts fear the H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that could spread easily between people, but there has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus so far in the latest cases.

Emergency levels
The World Health Organization (WHO) says the spike in cases in the northern hemisphere winter follows a similar pattern to that seen over the past three years and was to be expected.

But it was encouraging that outbreaks were being quickly reported and dealt with, a senior WHO official said.

“It is not surprising that we are seeing an increase (in cases) ... but we are seeing much more effective responses than we were a few years ago,” Keiji Fukuda, WHO’s coordinator for the global influenza program, told journalists.

In Vietnam, where bird flu has killed 42 of the 93 people infected since 2003, the virus appeared to be spreading fast among fowl in the country’s southern Mekong Delta, threatening to engulf the major rice-growing region.

The Animal Health Department said in a report seen on Monday that tests showed H5N1 had killed ducks in the province of Soc Trang, just a day after bird flu was found in the neighboring province of Tra Vinh.

The Agriculture Ministry has ordered an additional poultry vaccination campaign in the Mekong Delta area and requested reinforcement of animal health teams to contain the spread.

Agriculture officials have warned the country’s 84 million people that the virus could spread to all 64 cities and provinces nationwide via migrating birds.

Indonesia planned to prohibit people from keeping backyard fowl in three high-risk provinces.

“We are taking the step because the current condition has reached emergency health levels,” Aburizal Bakrie, coordinating minister for welfare, told a news conference.

Millions of chickens live in close proximity to humans in Indonesia and bans on backyard fowl could be difficult to enforce. Health education campaigns are patchy and power has been increasingly devolved to the provinces.

Past campaigns to cull poultry have met with stiff resistance because little or no compensation has been paid.

WHO says H5N1 has infected 265 people and killed 159 of them in 10 countries since 2003 and has urged vigilance as the disease continues to circulate among birds.

China and Egypt have reported new human cases in recent weeks and Nigeria last week culled around 20,000 chickens in the latest outbreak among poultry.