Deadly bird flu spreads deeper across Asia

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The Independent Online

The bird flu death toll rose yesterday as the epidemic sweeping through Asia infected more children who have come in direct contact with diseased ducks and chickens.

Warnings that the virus could recombine with human influenza and develop into a lethal pandemic have created a backlash against politicians accused of deceiving the public about the scourge festering in Asia's chicken coops and live markets.

In Thailand, where health officials confirmed yesterday that bird flu has killed a six-year-old boy, 10 severe respiratory cases have been linked to the spread of the virus to humans. Four fatal cases remain under investigation.

Taking into account the six Vietnamese who collapsed and died from the bird flu in the past fortnight, there could be at least 11 fatalities.

Karachi, Pakistan's biggest port, announced an outbreak of a milder strain of avian flu which is present in up to a quarter of the poultry in Sindh province. Culling has begun there, as well as in seven other affected countries.

The European Union, which imports one third of Thailand's frozen and chilled chicken, announced that it would take at least five months before supermarket shelves were restocked with Thai poultry. Some believe Thai authorities tried to protect its booming agri-business by mislabelling the bird flu, which has since scythed through Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Indonesia and Cambodia, and is expected to strike Laos and Burma as well. Member states are concerned that Bangkok cannot be relied on to stamp out the virus, officials said.

Beate Gminder, the EU's consumer spokeswoman, said: "Given the unfolding of the events in Thailand last week and the admission of the Thai prime minister that things were not as the public was led to believe, an independent verification of these measures and their impact in Thailand will have to take place.

"It's hard to see for the time being if this ban can be lifted in the short term," she said, noting that a similar scare last year in the Netherlands took five months to lift under "optimum" conditions. She said EU experts would review the situation early next week.

Thai farmers have alleged for weeks that millions of chickens were succumbing to bird flu while the government delayed or hushed up veterinarians' test results. But officials insisted until last Friday that Thai chickens were suffering from fowl cholera or bronchitis - neither of which poses risks for people.

Opposition leaders have urged a no-confidence vote in parliament against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's Prime Minister.

Local consumption of chicken and eggs is declining across the region as the scope of the crisis becomes evident, even though tainted meat does not spread the flu.

Customers prefer skewered pork or prawns to chicken at pavement food stands, and few people are ordering chicken nuggets in fast-food outlets.

Mr Thaksin has vowed to get the outbreak under control by the end of the month. Health authorities suggested that 90 days was more likely.

While soldiers and prisoners culled chickens by tying them into fertiliser sacks and flinging them alive into pits, health officials are anxious to protect farmers from exposure. Villagers chanced upon a total of 200 sick quail dumped near the Pranburi river in central Thailand. Tests were performed on the carcasses.

Some farmers suspect that migratory birds are to blame for introducing the virus to Thailand as early as October 2003, when their flocks suddenly began to become sick. Several lakes in Suphanburi province attract wintering flocks.