Army of a million volunteers pitches in to tackle bird-flu

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A massive army of volunteers wearing protective plastic bags over their flip-flops is taking the Thai Prime Minister's battle against bird flu to its source: Thailand's chicken coops and live markets.

A massive army of volunteers wearing protective plastic bags over their flip-flops is taking the Thai Prime Minister's battle against bird flu to its source: Thailand's chicken coops and live markets.

More than a million people pitched in to disinfect farms and bury dead chickens yesterday amid fears that the virus had mutated and was being spread from human to human.

Thailand went on full alert after health officials confirmed on Tuesday that the latest victim, Pranee Sodchuen, 26, probably caught the disease directly from her young daughter, who died in her arms while coughing blood. Because the girl was misdiagnosed with dengue fever and cremated, her tissue samples cannot verify human -to-human transmission.

But the likelihood is strong, and has sparked fears that a deadly global flu pandemic might follow. The lethal Spanish Flu, which ravaged the world from 1918 to 1919, is believed to have been a virus that jumped from animals. The disease killed between 20 and 100 million people, long before jet travel speeded up contact.

Around the world, public health systems are now stockpiling vaccines for a worst-case scenario. At least 10 Thais and 20 Vietnamese have died from respiratory complications after contracting bird flu, usually spread by direct contact with poultry, since the beginning of the year. Another dozen have recovered. Across Asia, more than 100 million chickens have died or been culled, and the virus was detected in pigs, wild birds and a few pet cats and zoo tigers that devoured raw fowl. A new outbreak erupted in July, and has since spread into Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and southern China. Fighting cocks and wild fowl are suspected of violating quarantine zones.

The bird-flu debacle has blighted Thailand's billion dollar annual poultry exports, even though the virus is killed by heat. Most chicken in Thailand is sold live, not as chilled drumsticks wrapped in cling film.

Scientists say a few human-to-human transmission cases may have taken place during Hong Kong's epidemic in 1997 and last year in the Netherlands. One American authority called the new case in Thailand a fluke, and said that no mutation was noted in the H5N1 virus .

"If we have to spend billions, we will," said the Deputy Prime Minister, Chaturon Chaisang, who heads the eradication task force. "The priorities now are to protect humans from the disease and minimise the chances of chickens being infected."

Free-range chickens may soon be a distant memory, and the switch to factory farms will come at a considerable cost. "Given that people have died ... we can no longer allow free range poultry farming to continue at the current large scale," Mr Chaturon said. Penalties for failing to switch to modern farming methods are to be announced after the weekend.

Dr Kumara Rai, of the World Health Organisation, said that "eradicating the virus in one month, I'm sorry to say, is almost impossible".

Most Thais live in rural areas and, even in town, the majority keep chickens, ducks, fighting cocks or guinea hens. Village fowls are like pets, wandering in and out of people's huts, leaving a trail of droppings that can be highly infectious. Even flocks of ducks, which can carry bird flu without showing symptoms, are now viewed as bio-hazards as they fly overhead.

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