JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia has confirmed its ninth human death from bird flu, senior Health Ministry officials said on Tuesday, taking the global death toll from the disease to 71, all in Asia.
A Hong Kong laboratory affiliated with the World Health Organisation confirmed an Indonesian had died from the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, which scientists fear will mutate into an easily spread human virus and spark a pandemic in which millions could die.
"We have received confirmation. (The death toll) is now nine," Hariadi Wibisono told Reuters about the findings on a 35-year-old man who died last month, making him the latest confirmed death in Indonesia, the world's fourth-most populous nation.
Another senior health ministry official told Reuters the man lived in West Jakarta where he had contact with live chickens that carried the H5N1 virus.
"He was building his house and around it there were many chickens and birds running around. Researchers tested those birds and they were positive" carriers of H5N1, said I Nyoman Kandun, director general of disease control at the health ministry.
He added the man died in a local hospital before he could be treated at the government-designated hospital for bird flu patients.
The H5N1 strain has killed 71 out of 138 people known to have been infected. Five other people have been confirmed to have contracted the virus in Indonesia but have survived.
Separately, WHO Regional Director for Southeast Asia Samlee Plianbangchang said in Jakarta that Indonesia must have good teamwork between the ministries of agriculture and health to prevent the virus from infecting more people.
"I think it's a matter of working together. They have to cooperate and education to the people is very important," Plianbangchang told reporters.
He was speaking during a visit to recognise the Indonesian health ministry for its efforts after last December's tsunami disaster.
The highly pathogenic H5N1 strain is endemic in poultry in parts of Asia, and has affected birds in two-thirds of the provinces in Indonesia, an archipelago of some 17,000 islands and 220 million people.
The country has millions of chickens and ducks, many in the backyards of rural or urban homes.
Plianbangchang said culling was not effective for cash-strapped Indonesia, due to the high number of backyard fowl, and vaccination for poultry may be a better approach.
"We have to make sure there will be no transmission of the bird flu virus from chicken to man. Therefore, we have to control bird flu in chickens, then automatically bird flu in man is under control," he said.
Jakarta is preparing an early bird flu warning system aimed at reaching remote areas to speed up reporting of any outbreaks.
The "village preparedness policy" involves local governments setting up health posts in all villages, where personnel including doctors would be alert to flu cases in birds and humans, particularly in infected areas.
(Additional reporting by Ade Rina)