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Bird flu recurs in Thailand, Tibet also hit

Thailand's hopes of following Japan in declaring a swift end to its huge bird flu crisis were dashed Monday as the virus that has killed 20 Asians reappeared in eight areas where it had been thought vanquished.
South Korean pedestrians eat free chicken on a street in Seoul Monday. South Korea's poultry industry groups have offered to pay $1.72 million insurance to anyone who gets bird flu from home-bred poultry.
South Korean pedestrians eat free chicken on a street in Seoul Monday. South Korea's poultry industry groups have offered to pay $1.72 million insurance to anyone who gets bird flu from home-bred poultry.
/ Source: Reuters

Thailand's hopes of following Japan in declaring a swift end to its huge bird flu crisis were dashed Monday as the virus that has killed 20 Asians reappeared in eight areas where it had been thought vanquished.

Japan planned to declare an end to its sole outbreak this week if no new cases were reported, officials said, and Thailand had hoped to follow suit by the end of this month despite warnings from U.N. health experts that it was being premature.

But Deputy Agriculture Minister Newin Chidchop told reporters the H5N1 virus had been found in fighting cocks in areas of eight provinces where mass slaughters were carried out and in ducks in one not struck by the first wave of infections.

"We have found 14 spots in nine provinces," he said.

The infected fighting cocks -- valuable birds some owners were accused of hiding -- were found in former "red zones" where the government had ordered the slaughter of poultry within a three-mile radius of an outbreak, he said.

An animal welfare organization said in London Monday that chickens were being set on fire or buried alive across East Asia as countries struggle to contain the outbreak.

Thailand has slaughtered 30 million birds, about the same number as Vietnam, where at least 14 people have died of bird flu and which reported two more cases of the disease.

"The slaughter of millions of chickens by burying them alive is an inhumane and totally unacceptable method of slaughter and should be stopped immediately," said Leah Garces, head of campaigns at the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

Thailand, where six people have died after catching the highly infectious virus from sick poultry, had been warned by the World Health Organization that it was in too much of a rush to declare the crisis ended.

It said some countries appeared to be putting business ahead of human health, a charge Thailand said could not be leveled at it despite having the world's fourth largest chicken export industry which earns more than $1 billion a year.

As Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra assured worried Thais the crisis would be over soon, the WHO and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization emphasized how difficult it was to stamp out the virus, thought to be spread by migrating birds.

It could take months, even a couple of years, to be sure the H5N1 virus was no longer a threat, the FAO said.

"Based on our experience in Vietnam and Thailand, we still have concerns that the outbreak is not going to be contained in the next one or two months," Kumara Rai, of the WHO's Southeast Asia office said in New Delhi.

Two new cases
Thailand had promised to be meticulous in ensuring the eradication of the virus and it was a second set of tests in former "red zones" which discovered the bug was still present.

A 15-year-old boy tested positive for the disease and was being treated at a hospital in the northern province of Thanh Hoa while a 22-year-old man was confirmed as having the disease and was in hospital in Ho Chi Minh City in the south.

The virus, which has struck in eight Asian nations, is still spreading. Even Tibet's towering mountains and thin air haven't kept it out.

China's Ministry of Agriculture said the H5N1 avian flu virus had been found in Lhasa, the Himalayan region's capital, about 11,800 ft above sea level.

That news came as an emergency meeting of health and agricultural officials from seven South Asian nations, and U.N. experts from Bangkok, reaffirmed a ban on import of poultry groups and exotic pet birds in a bid to prevent an outbreak.

Participants vowed to boost cooperation and declared poultry and poultry products from the region safe for human consumption.

Six of the seven nations -- Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka -- have no reported cases of bird flu so far. But officials said after the meeting in New Delhi they "wanted to be very, very cautious as they could be caught unawares" after the crisis in the neighborhood.

The seventh country, Pakistan, like Taiwan and three states in the United States, has been struck by a milder strain of avian flu that cannot cross the species barrier into humans.

So far, the H5N1 virus has not proved its ability to pass from human to human, although the WHO says it cannot absolutely rule out that possibility in one Vietnamese case.

Experts say H5N1 could attain that ability if it got into a person incubating a human flu virus, allowing it to mutate into a strain that could sweep through people with no immunity to it.

That, they say, is a very remote possibility, but one which necessitates a rigorous war to eradicate the virus.

There were fears, quashed quickly by the FAO, the virus had got into pigs in Vietnam, which could accelerate the process of mutation into a strain that might cause a human pandemic.

But a clouded leopard died of the H5N1 virus on Jan. 27 at Kaokiew Zoo, 40 miles east of Bangkok. A tiger at the same zoo was recovering from the virus, Thailand said Monday.