Pig virus hysteria sweeps Malaysia

FARMHANDS BRANDISHINGwooden planks moved from pen to pen yesterday, clubbing pigs to death as fears that a deadly virus had become airborne caused widespread panic across Malaysia.

"Keep safe, go away!" shouted a pig breeder in a surgical mask, who identified himself as Wong. "Even if you smell the pigs, you can die!"

In a desperate attempt to stave off an epidemic, authorities have stepped up the battle against Japanese encephalitis, which has been spreading from pigs to humans via the culex mosquito, which breeds in nearby swamps and drains.

The government said on Thursday that it would send 1,400 soldiers into a group of villages, including Sungai Nipah, 60 miles south-east of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, over the next three days to evacuate residents and spray insecticide. The authorities also intend to kill 64,000 pigs that might be carrying the virus.

More than 30 people have died in the area and another 20 nationwide since October. Nearly 50 have been hospitalised with encephalitis symptoms, 17 on Thursday alone. The villages' schools and shops have been closed for days.

"We're now in an emergency situation," Lim Kit Siang, the opposition leader in parliament, told a crowd in the village of Bukit Pelandok. "The people are panicking."

Hundreds of families abandoned their homes this week, but a few men have stayed behind to tend their pigs. "The government should tell us whether the virus is airborne. We want to know why people are dying even after the mosquitoes are killed," Mr Lim said.

The Malaysian Health Minister, Chua Jui Meng, said on Thursday that health officials had yet to determine if the virus was airborne. (AP)