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Asia's uphill battle against bird flu

NBC's Robert Bazell reports from Thailand on efforts to stop the virus.

At one of Bangkok’s largest markets Friday, the police were rounding up birds of all varieties, stuffing them in bags and burying them alive because of the danger to Thailand’s capital from bird flu.

But one stall operator, Surat Booncheua, was vowing to keep his animals, showing how difficult efforts to control the virus can be. He said his prize-fighting cocks were worth the equivalent of $200 and the government was offering him less than a dollar each.

Killing the birds in the marketplace is critical. These live animal markets — so called wet markets — are common throughout Asia. Scientists say they are a major source of disease transmission between animals, and from animals to people. This is because the huge variety of creatures sold for food or as pets come from many places and are usually kept in tight quarters.

As bird flu spreads, experts at the Thai Ministry of Health take constant phone calls from hospitals and clinics throughout the country with reports of suspected human cases. Each report must be checked carefully.

'The tip of the iceberg'
So far Thailand has only three confirmed human cases of bird flu. Even though the virus has spread to many parts of Asia, human cases have been confirmed only in Thailand and Vietnam.

But, said Dr. Scott Dowell, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control representative in Thailand, the actual number of human cases may be vastly underreported. “What we are seeing now may be the tip of the iceberg. Most of these parts of the region where you are seeing this bird disease don’t have the capability of identifying and testing these cases," says Dowell.

Health officials' biggest fear is that the virus will mutate to pass from person to person throughout the world, like human influenza.

“It’s not a matter of whether we will have another pandemic. It’s only a question of whether it is this year or next year,” Dowell added.

In the market, Booncheua’s birds were still there at the end of the day. Among ordinary people the resolve to fight bird flu is often not as strong as the official policy.