Gunfire as Malays massacre pigs

MALAYSIAN SOLDIERS firing shotguns and covered in plastic overalls and face-masks slaughtered pigs yesterday in an all-out effort to control a virus believed to have killed more than 50 people.

The tranquillity of rural farms was shattered by the sound of gunfire and the squeals of frightened animals as soldiers exterminated pigs in villages worst affected by the outbreak of Japanese encephalitis. Health authorities used tractors and bulldozers to bury the carcasses of the slain animals.

The virus, which attacks the brain, causing high fever, vomiting and coma, is transmitted from pigs to humans by Culex mosquitoes, which thrive in swamps and open drains.

The operation, which began late on Saturday, originally called for the destruction of 65,000 animals over the weekend. But only about 2,000 pigs were killed on the first day, according to newspaper reports from the state of Negri Sembilan, which is 100 kilometres (62 miles) southeast of the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur.

The killing got off to a slow start because of rain and a shortage of bulldozers, Malaysia's health minister said.

Malaysia eventually plans to kill all 300,000 pigs that are living in the affected area, the national news agency Bernama said.

More than 30 people have died in the area, which has a population of 11,000, bringing the nationwide death toll to 53 since October. Nearly all the victims have lived or worked near pig farms. No further deaths were reported yesterday.

Hundreds of families have already abandoned their villages. Police said that the few who remained in the prosperous pig-rearing district had been evacuated to enable soldiers and police to begin the slaughter.

Fire and rescue helicopters clattered over the villages on Saturday to dump 9,000 litres of insecticide on swamps where mosquitoes breed. "Our aim is to destroy the mosquito larvae in the canals and ponds," said Soh Chai Hock, the region's fire chief.

The federal government ordered vaccinations for 300,000 people and 500,000 pigs across the country in an attempt to control the disease.

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