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Fight against bird flu intensifies in rural Thailand

NBC's Robert Bazell reports on the efforts to stop the spread of bird flu in Thailand and its impact on the local economy.

In the countryside of Thailand Wednesday it was difficult to find a farm with living chickens.  One of the few that did have them required visitors to be sprayed with disinfectant to protect the chickens from a human bringing in bird flu.

The owner of the farm, Vorayuth Chaynarong, has good reason to be afraid. In recent days Thai soldiers and prisoners have slaughtered more than 7 million birds from infected flocks.

Bird flu has been a recurring problem in Asia for years — it is carried by migratory birds that spread the virus from region to region. The illness first infected humans in Hong Kong in 1997, but was contained after a mass slaughter of millions of chickens. Scientists are not sure why the virus has made a comeback this year in at least 10 countries.

While bird flu has so far killed only a handful of people, health officials fear the virus will mutate into a strain capable of spreading from person to person, like human influenza does. If that happens, the virus will become a major, global health threat.

In Bangkok, ministers and health officials from several countries held an emergency session Wednesday, promising cooperation and openness to halt the spread of the disease.

“We have emphasized the highest degree of transparency," said Klauspeter Schmallenbach, the European commissioner to Thailand. But already several countries have tried to hide the problem and many researchers worry about the limited economic resources available in the region to contain the virus.

Is it possible to bring this outbreak under control? “Everybody hopes so," said Dr. Scott Dowell, who attended the meeting on behalf of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many farmers hesitant to kill birds
But health officials face an uphill battle and farmer Chaynarong’s situation illustrates part of the problem. While the Thai government is reimbursing farmers for the market value of birds it kills, farmers are hesitant to destroy their flocks because of the long-term economic impact. Chaynarong says that if all his birds were killed and egg production stopped, he and his 30 workers would still be devastated financially despite the payment from the government.

And the plight of farmers in Thailand is better than that of others in neighboring countries. Other governments are paying less -- or nothing -- and creating a huge incentive for farmers to hide sick birds.

Meanwhile, officials report that the human infections and deaths, including two in Thailand, have been mostly limited to children living near farms who are exposed to chickens or chicken droppings. Researchers emphasize that unless the virus mutates, most bird flu infections in Asia can be prevented by avoiding contact with poultry and thoroughly cooking chicken meat, which kills the virus.

Despite these safety measures, health officials' primary focus is the elimination of infected birds, the source of the virus, since as long as the disease continues to spreads in birds, people throughout the world will be at risk.