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Infected pigs face gassing

MALAYSIA IS considering gassing pigs en masse because troops sent in to prevent the spread of a deadly virus cannot shoot them quickly enough.

Authorities admitted yesterday they know almost nothing about a second virus that might have caused many of the 62 human deaths blamed on an outbreak of Japanese encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Some 1,000 soldiers in protective gear and masks have killed more than 70,000 pigs in the worst-hit central state of Negeri Sembilan in the past week to try to contain the outbreak, one of the country's worst viral epidemics.

Authorities had planned to shoot more than 350,000 pigs over 10 days, but because this was taking too long, they were expected to use carbon monoxide to help to kill the 280,000 animals remaining in the main pig- breeding areas. The Malaysian authorities hadlinked dozens of deaths in pig-farming regions to encephalitis, which is carried by the mosquito and harboured in pigs.

But Abu Bakar Suleiman, health director-general, said yesterday that only 18 people were confirmed to have died from encephalitis and the rest could have been infected by an unknown second virus. Only 42 of 171 people in hospitals with symptoms of encephalitis - fever, headaches and convulsions - were confirmed infected with the encephalitis virus.

Little is known about the second virus except that it may be related to the Hendra virus, a fruit bat virus discovered in Australia in 1994 that causes encephalitis-like symptoms. (Reuters)