New bird flu case reported in Thailand

Thailand reported a new suspected human case of bird flu on Friday, while authorities prepared for a massive free chicken feast aimed at reviving the nation's ailing poultry industry.

As part of an effort to shore up public confidence and the ailing poultry industry, up to 60 tons of cooked chicken meat and eggs will be given away at the feast Saturday in a park opposite Bangkok's royal palace, said Deputy Agriculture Minister Newin Chidchob.

The government claims eating eggs and chicken meat is safe, as long as they're well-cooked. But that hasn't persuaded many Thais to resume eating them, as the bird flu death toll climbed to 18 - five in Thailand and 13 in Vietnam.

Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said a 5-year-old girl from northern Phayao province, who was hospitalized with flu-like symptoms earlier this week, is being tested for bird flu.

Twenty people are suspected of having bird flu in Thailand, and nine of them have died. The list of suspected cases has been adjusted almost daily, as authorities receive word of new possible cases or laboratory test results that rule out old ones.

A UN official in Vietnam said Friday that preliminary tests showed that that pigs in and around Hanoi had tested positive for the virus, but Thai officials said the disease hasn't been detected in pigs in Thailand.

Avian flu has been found among poultry in 40 of Thailand's 76 provinces, and officials have slaughtered nearly 26 million birds to try to stop the disease from spreading.

A Thai expert warned last month that if culled chicken are not disposed of safely, the disease could spread from chickens to pigs and could transfer easily from pigs to people due to genetic similarities.

Deputy Prime Minister Somkid said the culling campaign was completed in all affected provinces except Bangkok, and that provincial governors and the military will carry out tests next week to check if the disease remains.

"Once everything has been cleared, I am confident ... importers will buy our chickens again," Somkid said. "What we need to do now is restore public confidence domestically."

Government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair said Thailand plans to announce that the country is free of the virus by the end of February.

Thailand - the world's fourth largest exporter of chicken products - shipped about 500,000 tons of chicken worth 52 billion baht in 2003. The European Union, Japan and other major markets have banned Thai chicken products over disease fears.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government has faced widespread allegations of initially covering up the outbreak, which livestock officials may have detected as early as November, to protect the country's lucrative chicken exports.

Jakrapob brushed aside the allegations, quoting Thaksin as saying that Thailand "isn't desperate for money" and had acted responsibly toward local and foreign chicken buyers during the bird flu crisis.