The bird flu eruption in Asia, which the WHO says could set off an epidemic worse than SARS, has leapt into humans in Thailand and appeared in Cambodia, officials said on Friday.
A chicken butcher, one of six Thais being tested for the disease, died of pneumonia, said Charal Trinwuthipong, director-general of the Department of Disease Control.
After days of declaring the country free of the bird flu which killed five Vietnamese, the Thai government said two boys, aged six and seven and from different provinces west of Bangkok, were “critical but stable” with the disease.
Three more people are being tested and the Bangkok government issued an urgent warning to anyone suffering from fever and bronchitis after being around poultry to rush to the doctor.
“Those who have contacted chicken and have high fever and bronchitis should report themselves to doctors immediately,” Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan said.
Children appear most at risk. No one knows why, but four of the five killed in Vietnam were children.
The announcement bird flu had struck threatened to devastate the Thai chicken industry, the world’s fourth-largest.
The European Union, the second biggest buyer of chicken from a country which earns more than $1 billion a year from poultry exports, promptly joined Japan, Thailand’s biggest customer, in banning imports of Thai chicken.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra shrugged off the bans, saying they would have only a “trivial” impact on exports which he expects to help the economy to grow eight percent this year.
“GDP will be hit by only 0.1 percent and exports will be hit by 0.4 pct,” he told reporters.
But the World Health Organization was clearly alarmed.
It said in a statement the near simultaneous bird flu outbreaks in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and now Thailand and Cambodia were “historically unprecedented” and it was worried a new, virulent strain of influenza could sweep around the world.
That could happen, it said, if someone got human and bird flu at the same time, allowing the viruses to exchange genes and form a new strain which could pass easily from person to person.
So far, there is no evidence that has happened, with all the known cases being infected by direct contact with chickens.
But the WHO said eliminating the H5N1 bird flu virus “should be given high priority as a matter of international public health importance.”
Not easy to stamp out
The Food and Agricultural Organization said it was equally worried.
“This confirms FAO’s concern that the spread of bird flu is taking on a large-scale regional dimension,” He Changchui, its chief for Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement, referring to the confirmation of outbreaks in Thailand and Cambodia.
A World Health Organization official said there were no suspected human cases of bird flu in Cambodia.
But Cambodia has shut its borders to poultry and poultry products, although in such a deeply impoverished country any ban is likely to have holes.
The WHO is urging human suffers be treated like those with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, another disease which crossed from animals to humans, which frightened the world last year and killed nearly 800 people.
Bird flu will not be easy to stamp out, as the WHO said the virus had mutated since previous outbreaks in Hong Kong in 1997 and 2003. Migrating birds can spread it and Hong Kong has found a dead peregrine falcon carrying the virus.
Swift action promised
In Thailand, where the chicken industry employs hundreds of thousands of people on 30,000 poultry farms and in related industries, like feed, the immediate impact of bird flu jumping into humans will be largely economic.
Thaksin promised swift action in a country already slaughtering chickens and disinfecting farms due to an outbreak of poultry cholera and said it would have little real impact.
“This problem will pass quickly because we will try to solve it very quickly,” he told reporters.
But Dominique Dwor-Frecaut of Barclays Capital Research in Singapore said it was not good news.
“You are looking at an impact not only on poultry exports, but potentially on tourism. Hopefully we won’t see the same level of panic like we did with SARS,” she said.
“It’s too soon to call it a major catastrophe. There is still time to control the epidemic and if it’s controlled the impact on the economy will be minimal.”
Tourism accounts for about six percent of Thailand’s GDP with more than 10 million foreigners a year taking their vacations here. This year, the Thai government was shooting for 12 million.