HANOI: The human toll in Asia's bird flu crisis rose to 18 yesterday with a death in Vietnam, and a UN official said preliminary tests indicated pigs might have the virus that has infected tens of millions of chickens across the region.
Ten countries are battling bird flu, culling 50 million chickens and other fowl as international health officials seek ways to contain a virus that has rapidly spread across half of the Asian continent.
Bird flu has jumped to people in Vietnam – where 13 have died – and Thailand, where the toll stands at five, with health officials tracing most of those cases directly to contact with sick birds.
But experts have said it's possible the virus jumped to people through another mammal, such as pigs, which have been implicated in human flu epidemics in the past. Swine are genetically more similar to humans than birds are.
Anton Rychener, representative for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation here, said “nasal swabs taken from pigs have been positive for H5N1,'' the deadly strain of bird flu.
“It continues to be under investigation and is of concern,'' he said.
However, an expert at the agency's headquarters in Rome said no such data was found. The reason for the discrepancy between the two FAO experts was unclear.
Other health officials expressed caution about reading too much into the early results.
“It's just preliminary and no conclusion can be made at the moment,'' said John Rainford, spokesman for the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Bangkok.
“We consider the probability that pigs can get infected and keep a close watch. But right now, there's no evidence that the virus is in pigs. It's too early to say that pigs are infected with H5N1.''
Health experts at an emergency bird flu meeting overnight in Rome endorsed a strategy of vaccinating healthy chickens alongside the continuing slaughter of infected poultry that the WHO has said was the best way to deal with the outbreak.
A widely available human vaccine is believed about six months away, but some bird vaccines are available now.
Health officials in eastern China were looking into a mass death of brambling finches, a migratory sparrow-like bird that winters throughout China.
One official in the Jiangsu Province city of Taizhou, who gave her surname as Xu, said about 100 brambling finches fell dead from the sky in the city's Kou'an town. Blood samples were taken the same day but results were not yet available, she said.Thirty birds have died mysteriously in Singapore, media reports said yesterday, but authorities maintained the city-state was free from the bird flu
The pigeons, crows and mynahs were found dead near a housing estate on Thursday, giving rise to fears among residents that they may have died from the virus, the Malay language daily Berita Harian reported.
“I'm worried if the birds have been infected with the virus because if it can start in a place this small, that means it could spread,” housing estate resident Othman Johari, 50, told the paper.
The cause of the birds' death is still unknown, Berita Harian said.
Although global health authorities are unsure about the origin of the virus, they have said migratory birds may be spreading it across Asia. – Agencies
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