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Bird flu kills Thai man; mutation fears raised

A 48-year-old Thai man has become the 67th person known to have been killed by a bird flu virus that has been moving steadily from Asia into Europe since re-emerging in South Korea in 2003, officials said.
A Thai livestock official tests a duck a
A Thai livestock official tests a duck at a farm in Nakhon Prathom province, south of Bangkok, on Oct. 19.Pornchai Kittiwongsakul / AFP-Getty Images
/ Source: Reuters

A 48-year-old Thai man has become the 67th person known to have been killed by a bird flu virus that has been moving steadily from Asia into Europe since re-emerging in South Korea in 2003, officials said on Thursday.

Concern about the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu centers on scientists’ fears that it may mutate into a form that passes easily among humans, sparking a pandemic that may kill millions.

Possible clusters of bird flu among members of one family in Indonesia have raised concern among health experts that this feared mutation may already be happening.

“With the increase of clusters the possibility has to be thoroughly examined that the virus might have changed and could possibly spread from human to human,” Health Minister Siti Fadillah Supari was quoted as saying by the state news agency.

A father and son are being treated at a Jakarta hospital for symptoms of the virus but the diagnosis has not been confirmed.

All the human deaths from avian flu have so far been in Asia but the H5N1 strain, carried by migrating birds, was detected this month in birds in Russia, Turkey and Romania.

In Brussels, the European Union adopted fresh measures to fight the virus, banning live birds from markets or exhibitions without permission and urging states to keep wild flocks away from poultry feed.

The European Commission said in a statement a committee of EU veterinary experts had agreed on the measures, which also included recommendations for vaccinating birds in zoos.

Both France and Italian poultry producers tried to reassure consumers after a food industry body said poultry sales had fallen by 20 percent because of fears of bird flu.

“There is absolutely no danger from eating poultry products in France,” France’s Farm Ministry said in a statement. “The Asian (bird flu) virus is not present in France.”

“Our country is self-sufficient -- it produces more than it consumes and it does not import from areas hit by the virus,” said Aldo Muraro, head of the Italian poultry producers union.

“And -- as international and Italian experts have said, the virus is transmitted through contact with infected animals, not by eating chicken,” Muraro added.

Germany has ordered poultry to be kept in pens and Poland has said domestic fowl must be kept indoors to prevent contact with migrating birds.

Coping with pandemic
In Ottawa, Canada’s top public health expert said the world was both better and worse equipped to cope with a pandemic now than it was for the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed some 50 million people worldwide.

“... we are better prepared, we have better knowledge, we are -- at least in our part of the world -- healthier than people were in 1918,” chief public health officer David Butler-Jones told a news conference.

“The challenges lie in the rapidity of travel and ability of diseases to move quickly around the world...” he said.

Major drug companies have drawn up plans to produce large quantities of vaccine as soon as possible after any mutation of the virus into a form that moves easily between humans.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told a news conference the latest human death was in Kanchanaburi province, which reported new outbreaks of avian influenza this week.

“The guy was infected with bird flu because he took a sick chicken, slaughtered it and then ate it,” Thaksin said. Contact with infected chickens or ducks is a known method of transmission.

Bang-on Benpad was the first Thai killed by the disease in a year, and the first human fatality since an Indonesian woman died last month. The virus has killed at least 44 people in Vietnam, 13 in Thailand, six in Indonesia and four Cambodians.

Thawat Suntrajarn, director-general at the Department of Disease Control, said the dead man’s son, who had been in close contact with chickens, had so far not tested positive.

The H5N1 strain appeared in Hong Kong in 1997, re-emerged in 2003 in South Korea and spread through Asia to Europe’s borders.

In Africa, Sudan and Tanzania joined Kenya and Comoros in banning some or all poultry imports. But experts say migrating birds could bring bird flu to East Africa’s Rift Valley lakes, where the rural poor are already hit by AIDS and malaria.

While countries in Europe and Africa struggle to keep the disease out, Asian nations battled new outbreaks.

Vietnam, which has been vaccinating millions of poultry, reported its first outbreak in poultry since July, slaughtering 180 ducks in Ninh Quoi A commune.

In China, where there have been no human cases, the Foreign Ministry confirmed H5N1 in 2,600 birds at a poultry farm in Inner Mongolia, but said the outbreak had been wiped out.

Aphaluck Bhatiasevi of the World Health Organization in Beijing told Reuters China had culled 91,100 birds and vaccinated 166,000.

Taiwan’s Agriculture Council said it had found infected birds in a container of rare birds smuggled from China, the island’s first case since late 2003.