Risk of deadly global epidemic as bid to halt spread of bird flu is foiled

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Thailand, one of two countries at the centre of the bird flu outbreak, is refusing to act against its spread, scuppering attempts to stop a devastating pandemic expected to kill tens of millions of people around the globe.

Thailand, one of two countries at the centre of the bird flu outbreak, is refusing to act against its spread, scuppering attempts to stop a devastating pandemic expected to kill tens of millions of people around the globe.

An emergency plan to tackle the disease, drawn up by the country's Deputy Prime Minister, would have involved slaughtering more than ten million ducks and chickens, and distributing face masks to protect people from catching the flu. But it has been rejected on the grounds that it could alarm the public.

The country's decision contrasts with the effective action being taken in nearby Vietnam, the only nation to be hit harder than Thailand, which has slowed the spread of the disease by killing 1.5 million birds since December.

A ban on raising poultry came into force in the capital, Ho Chi Minh City, last week. A major UN conference called to consider how to combat the disease opens in the city on Wednesday. Although outbreaks of the disease continue in Vietnam, it appears to have been beaten, at least temporarily, in seven of the country's provinces.

Twenty-nine people are so far confirmed dead in Vietnam and 12 in Thailand, but the virus, codenamed H5N1, has yet to mutate into a form which can spread rapidly among people. Experts agree that the best way of preventing this is to stamp the disease out among poultry.

Hong Kong is thought to have averted a worldwide catastrophe in 1997, after 18 people were affected, by slaughtering its entire poultry population in only three days.

Thailand's decision not to act, the personal initiative of its Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, marks the second time in two months that it has failed to take life-saving action in the face of a looming disaster. On Boxing Day, it was one of only two Indian Ocean countries to receive an immediate warning of the tsunami. But it failed to relay this to its coastal people or to tourists on the beaches until after long after the wave hit. Experts suggested that the warning was delayed because it might damage tourism.

Similar charges are being made this weekend, after the failure to act on bird flu. The Prime Minister intervened to stop the $124.7m (£66m) plan, after the cabinet had already approved it, concerned that it would alarm the public and other countries.

The government says that it needs more information. Yesterday it announced a two-year research programme into developing a vaccine against the disease.

Flu pandemics sweep through the world three or four times a century, and experts agree that a new one is long overdue. They happen when new viruses emerge to which no one is immune.

Most pandemics come from birds and start in China and South-east Asia. The crucial development comes when a patient suffering from ordinary flu also catches the bird flu, thus enabling the two viruses to mix and create a highly infectious, deadly strain.

Bird flu is causing particular alarm, since it has killed more than three-quarters of all the people so far known to have caught it. They have mainly contracted it directly from chickens, suggesting that a new pandemic would surpass the last one in 1918, which killed 50 million people worldwide. Like the 1918 strain, the disease appears to target healthy teenagers and young adults.

Experts warn that because of air travel the pandemic could reach Britain within a day of breaking out in the Far East. A drug that can treat it, oseltamivir, already exists, and is mainly marketed as Tamiflu. But although other countries are rushing to stockpile Tamiflu, the Department of Health says it will make no decision before the spring.

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