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Last Updated: Monday, 26 January, 2004, 07:20 GMT
Asia grapples with bird flu
Workers from Thai livestock department catch chickens
Millions of chickens have already been slaughtered
Thailand's confirmation that it is affected by human bird flu is likely to cause unease across Asia. A six-year-old Thai boy has died, and two other people are infected.

The latest outbreak of the disease has already devastated the region's chicken flocks, with millions of birds dying or culled.

Now there are fears about the impact on Asia's human population, already unnerved by last year's alarm over Sars.

Thailand's Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has called on people to stay calm.

"It's not a big deal... We can handle it," he said.

On the streets of the capital Bangkok, the mood was mixed.

BIRD FLU TIMELINE
Nov - Thailand deals with what it calls chicken cholera
15 Dec - S Korea confirms bird flu outbreak
9 Jan - UN sends help to Vietnam after bird flu outbreak
11 Jan - First of five Vietnamese deaths confirmed as bird flu
13 Jan - Japan confirms bird flu outbreak
15 Jan - Taiwan announces different strain of bird flu
21 Jan - Laos reports suspected chicken cholera
23 Jan - Thailand confirms first human cases of bird flu
23 Jan - Cambodia detects first case in chickens

One old woman told the BBC's Tony Cheng that the news had left her worried about eating chicken.

But a young businesswoman disagreed: "I'm not scared, because if you cook the chicken properly, it won't infect humans and today I had chicken with basil for lunch!"

Away from the capital, the mood among Thai chicken farmers was one of anger.

Farmers have accused the government of trying to cover up the bird flu outbreak by insisting, when birds first began falling ill in November, that it was a different disease, chicken cholera or bronchitis.

Thousands of chickens have been culled since then, but livestock officials are being accused of telling local farmers not to talk about bird flu for fear of hurting the country's important chicken export industry.

"They asked us to shut up if we love our country. I want to ask the government if they ever love us Thais. We're not stupid," Somkid Srisuphan told the AP news agency. She and her small-scale farmer husband Prasert said they expected to be bankrupted by the bird flu outbreak.

Import bans

Countries across Asia moved quickly to ban Thai chicken imports as soon as the human cases were confirmed.

One of the first to act was Hong Kong, which saw the first human cases of bird flu in a major outbreak in 1997, and which has had to deal with smaller infections since.

Lo Wing-lok, president of Hong Kong's medical association, said vaccinating chickens against bird flu had been key to stemming the territory's problems.

Dr Lo said that, as Hong Kong introduced a vaccine over the last 12 months, the number of indigenous cases had dropped.

The territory was now encouraging mainland China, a major exporter of chickens to Hong Kong, to use the vaccine too.

It's not that easy for humans to get bird flu
Lo Wing-lok, president of HK medical association

Dr Lo stressed that it was difficult for people to catch the disease, though he acknowledged that when they do, it is extremely serious. Of the 18 people who contracted it in Hong Kong in 1997, six died.

"The background is always a massive outbreak in birds which creates a huge 'viral load'. If you come into contact with birds, there's a chance you can become infected," he told BBC News Online.

Usually those affected work or live near farms, he said. In 1997, some children were infected by playing in a playground contaminated with bird faeces.

Dr Lo echoed the World Health Organization's warning that the disease could become far more dangerous to humans if it mutated.

But for now, those most at risk look likely to be the region's livestock producers.




SEE ALSO:
Bird flu fears stalk Thai economy
22 Jan 04 |  Business
Bird flu kills Vietnamese girl
19 Jan 04 |  Asia-Pacific


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