Flu panic grows as death toll rises

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The Independent Online

Thai officials were battling yesterday to contain mounting public panic over the outbreak of avian influenza, which has left millions of chickens dead and killed at least eight people across Asia. Up to 13 deaths have been linked to the disease.

By the weekend it was apparent that the widespread slaughter of chickens, including burying them alive in Thailand, had failed to stop the bird flu from spreading through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, in south-east Asia, as well as South Korea and Japan. The latest reports were of scattered outbreaks in Burma.

UN officials said yesterday that the deadly avian virus was continuing its advance. "There's no denying the disease is spreading," said Anton Rychener, Vietnam representative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

As the Thai media launched into scathing criticism of what it called a week of dithering and denials, the country's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was put on the defensive.

The crisis threatens to wreck the country's poultry export industry, which is worth £1bn a year and is the fourth largest in the world.

However, far more worrying than the demise of the chicken industry is whether, under the right conditions, a mutant strain of airborne influenza is developing that jumps species and can be transmitted to, and between, humans. That could put the world at risk of a deadly epidemic that would dwarf the impact of Sars.

The human victims reported so far all came into direct contact with infected birds, not humans. The latest victim was a 13-year-old Vietnamese boy.

The first human case confirmed in Thailand was a seven-year-old boy who fell ill while helping his mother move carcasses of stricken hens on their farm. He is recovering in hospital, though he still has to breathe with a respirator.

Six-year-old twins in another province were also diagnosed with avian influenza. Blood samples from a woman who died last week of acute respiratory disease, after all the chickens in her backyard succumbed, are being reassessed.

More than seven million Thai chickens have been hastily culled in a desperate attempt to contain the disease. By sunset yesterday, every single chicken in Suphan Buri province had been put down.

Pressed about who is to blame for the failure to stem the spread of bird influenza, Mr Thaksin said: "The chickens." He added: "I don't think it will last longer than 30 days."

To quell alarm, the Thai cabinet last week publicly ate a five-course chicken lunch. The move to reassure consumers came after three tigers and a lion in a private zoo were reported to have died after being fed raw chickens.

The disposal of chicken carcases poses great health risks, as livestock officials in protective gear have not been given the time to carry out a humane slaughter. Instead, they buried the chickens alive, shoving them into plastic sacks that were thrown into deep holes.

Farmers and health officials believe that the mysterious and virulent bird flu started ripping through warehouses packed with chickens last November, introduced perhaps by migratory Siberian waterfowl.

They have blamed senior politicians for playing down the risks and showing little concern for the well-being of poultry workers and the rural population.

Opposition politicians are calling for a vote of no-confidence in the Prime Minister.

"The government's efforts to sweep the problem under the carpet have exploded in its face, leaving the poultry industry in tatters and the very safety of the public in jeopardy," the Bangkok Post newspaper said.

A government spokesman has admitted that the outbreak was concealed for "a few weeks" to avoid alarm. Jakrapob Penkair defended the move, saying that "it was kept from the public, but full-scale operations have been under way" to contain the outbreak.

As international alarm grows over the potential health crisis, Japan and the European Union have joined countries in the region to ban the import of Thai chicken products and pull existing stocks off the shelves.

This occurred despite the Thai leader's protestations that all chicken exports had passed food-safety checks, and that cooked meat could not transmit the disease.

Mr Thaksin predicted that a ban would have only a small impact on Thailand's export trade, though the claim was hard to reconcile with the fact that Japan buys half the country's chicken exports and the EU one-third.

Bangkok's stockmarket and the Thai currency, the baht, have fallen sharply since the outbreak of the disease.