Two sisters in Vietnam became the latest victims of Asia’s bird flu outbreak Wednesday as regional ministers and international health experts vowed at an emergency meeting to curb the spread of the virus and find a vaccine.
The World Health Organization’s regional director Shigeru Omi warned, “there’s always potential for this kind of outbreak to result in serious global pandemic, which involves not hundreds, but could kill millions of people globally.”
Bird flu has raced through Asia’s poultry farms and, with the deaths of the women in Vietnam, has killed at least 10 people in two countries.
WHO has stressed that mass slaughter of infected birds is key to controlling the epidemic’s spread, but the three-hour meeting in Bangkok made no unanimous declaration of action. Indonesia said it does not plan to kill poultry and will rely on vaccinations, though it’s not clear that method will work.
Across Asia, millions of chickens and ducks have been killed by the disease or in government-ordered slaughters. China announced Wednesday it had slaughtered nearly 60,000 chickens, trying to assure the public that bird flu was under control a day after its first cases were confirmed in ducks.
Bangkok itself was declared a “danger zone” after the virus was detected in a fighting cock and other fowl around the sprawling metropolis.
Fending off accusations that it tried to cover up the emergency to protect its lucrative poultry export sector, Thailand said it would fire bureaucrats who allegedly failed to report the true extent of the disease that has now been detected in about one-third of its provinces.
Contact with sick birds
The bird flu virus claimed the most victims in Vietnam, where eight people have died. Two people have died in Thailand. Most cases have been traced to direct contact with sick birds.
The Vietnamese sisters who died last week, aged 23 and 30, had just attended their brother’s wedding. The brother also died last week, but his body was cremated before it could be tested for bird flu, officials said.
“Family members told us that the bride gave his family more than 10 chickens she bought from the market for the wedding reception,” said Le Dang Ha, director of the Instituted of Clinical Research for Tropical Medicine.
WHO said it would receive samples to confirm Vietnam’s diagnosis that the women, from Thai Binh, 60 miles southeast of Hanoi, had bird flu.
In their joint statement in Bangkok, ministers and experts pledged to tighten surveillance of the virus across Asia and to set up a regional veterinary network. They also vowed to study ways to fight animal disease outbreaks and develop low-cost test kits, vaccination and anti-viral drugs.
The virus has proved a disaster for the region’s poultry industry, in a health scare comparable to last year’s global outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.
Although there has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission in the latest outbreak, health officials are concerned the virus might mix with a regular human influenza strain to create a mutant form that could trigger the next human flu pandemic.
The World Health Organization says there’s still time to prevent the virus from taking root in the human population. “We have a window of opportunity to deal with this disease,” said Dr. Klaus Stohr, project leader for influenza surveillance and scientific groups at the World Health Organization.
Cooked poultry safe
Officials have said there are no indications so far that bird flu is spreading to people who eat properly cleaned and cooked poultry products.
In Indonesia — which insists it has no human cases of bird flu — officials on the island of Bali held a roast chicken and boiled egg cookout Wednesday to allay fears of eating fowl. About two dozen people attended.
Other governments worldwide have slapped import bans on poultry from countries affected with bird flu. The European Union banned imports from Thailand last week. Kuwait, Jordan and Sri Lanka on Tuesday banned poultry imports from several affected countries.
Wednesday’s conference in Bangkok drew representatives from nearly a dozen governments, including China, the European Union and the United States.
Food and Agriculture Organization spokesman Diderik de Vleeschauwer said the U.N. agency was advising three key strategies at the meeting: rapid slaughter of inflected flocks, modernization of poultry farming and studies on how to detect outbreak earlier.
“We think there is a need for rethinking livestock development in the region,” de Vleeschauwer said. “Live animal markets should be reviewed, and eventually restricted.”
Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan also have suffered outbreaks. But the virus that has killed flocks in Pakistan and Taiwan is a different, milder strain of avian flu — not the same kind that’s a threat to people.
The Philippines said Wednesday they are warning people to stay clear of migratory birds that traditionally flock to the Philippines during winter.
WHO officials are investigating whether migratory birds could explain the rapid spread of the virus through Asia or whether the outbreaks are coincidental. But Philip Round, a bird expert at Mahidol University in Bangkok, said he doubted the cause was migratory birds and instead blamed crowding in the region’s massive poultry population.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization also pointed to the massive concentration of livestock in China, Thailand and Vietnam as possibly helping the spread of bird flu across Asia. An agency official at the Bangkok meeting, He Changchui, said the poultry industry needs to be substantially restructured.