Bird flu hits Indonesia as Thai troops join the cull

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The Independent Online

The cull of Asian poultry to combat bird flu continued yesterday as Indonesia confirmed an outbreak of the highly contagious disease, which has already broken out in seven countries and spread to humans in Vietnam and Thailand.

In Thailand, where two more human cases of bird flu were officially confirmed yesterday, thousands of soldiers and prisoners were ordered to cull chickens after volunteers, fearful of contact with infected birds, did not come forward to help.

China joined the European Union and other countries in banning Thailand's poultry products, a move that may bring the billion dollar industry to its knees. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had staked his reputation on an annual economic growth target of 8 per cent, was lambasted for not taking prompt action against the outbreak of bird flu or warning farmers to take preventive measures.

Opposition leaders are calling for a no-confidence vote in parliament, comparing the deception about bird flu in Thailand to the refusal of Chinese officials to halt the spread of Sars in the critical early stages. That epidemic eventually caused 800 deaths worldwide.

Two experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are due in Bangkok today to assist in dealing with the crisis but a WHO spokesman in Manila estimated that it will take at least six months before a bird flu vaccine can be perfected - much too late for Asia's influenza season.

Scientists fear that the disease might combine with a human flu virus making person-to-person infection possible.

A spokesman for WHO, Dick Thompson, said: "Should this move from human to human - and it hasn't yet, I want to stress that - then it is going to be a real challenge."

The first documented spread of bird flu to humans occurred in Hong Kong seven years ago when the virus caused respiratory failure in 18 people and killed six. To control the outbreak, every fowl in Hong Kong was slaughtered.

Mr Thaksin has called an international health summit for Wednesday and has invited officials from all affected countries, which now include Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Indonesia.

Representatives from the EU, which imports one third of Thailand's chickens, will also take part. The EU Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne, after completing an inspection trip to Thailand, announced that Europe will not "take any risks with public health or animal health". The EU ban will be reviewed on 2 February.

Meanwhile, a dozen mysterious deaths in Bangladesh over the past week raised the concerns of health authorities. Blood samples from Bangladeshi victims will be sent for analysis to the United States Centers for Disease Control.

"It is too early to comment on whether it is bird flu while the matter is still under investigation," said Abdul Faiz, a professor of medicine at Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Most of the victims are boys from villages in Faridpur district, 90 miles north of the capital, Dhaka. No increase of chicken deaths has been noted there.

Symptoms of the mystery illness include high fever, headache and vomiting, before victims become comatose, doctors said. Bird flu in humans produces similar symptoms, along with respiratory failure. Most of those killed by bird flu were children.