Two 4-year-old boys became the latest victims of the bird flu virus sweeping Asia, bringing the human death toll to 22 on Wednesday.
They died in Thailand and Vietnam, the countries hit hardest by the avian influenza and the only places where the virus has jumped to humans.
The fast-moving disease also has devastated the region’s poultry farms, with 10 Asian governments slaughtering at least 80 million chickens and other fowl in efforts to control the outbreak.
Although most of the human cases have been traced to direct contact with sick birds, experts fear that the longer it takes to contain the virus, the greater the chances are that it might link with the human flu virus and become easily transmittable from person to person, sparking a new flu pandemic.
Asia is on a region-wide health alert, with new infections reported nearly every day in China. And while Thailand says it’s confident it can wipe out the virus by the end of February, the government announced this week that the disease has appeared in a previously unaffected province and re-emerged in eight others that had been declared safe.
Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Japan, and South Korea have also been hit. Pakistan and Taiwan have reported milder bird flu strains.
More control, surveillance needed
The latest victim in Thailand died Feb. 3, raising the nation’s toll to seven. The government announced Wednesday that test results confirmed the 4-year-old boy had the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu.
Vietnam said a 4-year-old boy died Wednesday, becoming the country’s 15th victim. The World Health Organization confirmed the death but would not confirm who it was.
Reflecting fears of the disease’s spread, virus-free Singapore gassed and incinerated 5,000 healthy chickens Wednesday to practice culling in case it appears in the city-state.
Health workers were outfitted with masks, goggles, gloves and blood-proof gowns, aimed at preventing contact with the birds’ feces, believed to be a primary source of infections.
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization cautioned Wednesday against killing wild birds, saying that would not help prevent future outbreaks.
“Prevention needs to be based on a control and surveillance system to ensure that any contact between wild birds and poultry is avoided or at least monitored,” it said in a statement after Thailand said hundreds of migratory storks died of the flu.