BANGKOK: The bird flu rampaging through Asia has made the dreaded leap into China and impoverished Laos as a second Thai boy died of the disease yesterday and countries tightened defences against a potential SARS-like epidemic.
The rapid spread of the virus – which has now erupted in 10 Asian countries and killed eight people – prompted the World Health Organisation and two other international organisations to ask for money and expertise to fight an all-out war against it.
“This is a serious global threat to human health,” said WHO chief Lee Jong-Wook. “We must begin this hard, costly work now.”
Shigeru Omi, director of the UN health agency’s Western Pacific office, warned millions of people could die if the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu combined with another human influenza virus that is moving towards the region.
“In my judgment it is possible and so that’s why we have to work very hard today, not tomorrow, to contain this, to prevent that mutation,” he said.
WHO has said that while humans have so far only caught bird flu from infected poultry – usually through contact with animal faeces – the virus could mutate into a form that can be transmitted between humans.
Omi said tests had confirmed another human case of bird flu in Vietnam and “there might be many more cases.”
As the crisis deepened, Thailand prepared to hold international talks aimed today at establishing a united front against the disease, the same approach used to fight last year’s SARS epidemic which claimed nearly 800 lives.
In Malaysia, the Government advised the people to take precautionary measures if the country is to remain free of the virus.
Health Minister Datuk Chua Jui Meng said in Kuala Lumpur that the authorities were monitoring all cases of influenza-like illnesses and there had been no abnormal increase in such cases.
China’s Xinhua news agency said bird flu had killed ducks in the southern province of Guanxi, which neighbours
Laos, where a senior Lao agriculture ministry official said the disease had struck the area around Vientiane.
Japan, which banned Thai chicken imports before Bangkok confirmed it was fighting a major outbreak, promptly shut its doors to chicken from China’s massive farms.
There was no immediate confirmation from either Beijing or Vientiane of whether they were dealing with the virulent H5N1 strain of the virus – which can cross the species barrier into humans and kill them – or a milder version, which cannot.
But health experts will have to deal with a problem they had hoped not to face if it turns out that Laos has the H5N1 strain which has proved a killer in neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand.
WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley said Laos had a “very poor public health infrastructure.”
“If the virus became embedded in Laos, we’ll have very serious problems,” he said.
The great fear is that the H5N1 virus might mate with human influenza and unleash a pandemic among people with no immunity to it.
But experts say that no matter how remote the possibility, they fear it could happen and WHO underlined that by launching its appeal with the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health.
In Bangkok, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said he expected a meeting of health and farm officials in the Thai capital today to help Thailand regain international confidence.
“Tomorrow, everything will be transparent and we hope to regain confidence from the meeting,” he said after the European Union, a major customer of a Thai chicken industry which earns more than US$1bil (RM3.8bil) a year in exports, said it did not trust his government.
EU spokesman Beate Gminder said the 15-member bloc would demand independent verification of Thai measures to wipe out the disease before it considered lifting its ban on imports of Thai chicken.
“Reliance on Thai assurances is not the best way forward,” she said.
Gminder also shot down Thaksin’s assurances to Thailand’s vast army of chicken farmers, many of whom have accused him of telling the world there was fowl cholera when they suspected bird flu, that the crisis would be over in a month.
The spread of bird flu has emerged with a rapidity WHO calls “historically unprecedented” and is proving difficult to stamp out despite the slaughter of millions of chickens, as a fresh outbreak in South Korea showed.
The deaths of the Thai boys means all but one of at least eight confirmed bird flu victims have been children. – Agencies
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