August 3, 2006

New Asia outbreaks fan fears bird flu spreading

By Darren Schuettler

BANGKOK (Reuters) - New outbreaks of bird flu in Thailand
and Laos are fanning fears the disease is flaring up again in
Asia, although concerns the virus was mutating in Indonesia
have subsided.

In Vietnam, which has not reported any outbreak of the H5N1
virus in poultry in the last seven months, a 35-year-old man
was hospitalized in the southern province of Kien Giang, on the
border with Cambodia, with suspected bird flu.

And there were signs on Thursday bird flu may be spreading
into central Thailand after outbreaks in the north and
northeast exposed weaknesses in the country's defenses against
a virus known to have killed 134 people.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization urged
governments to be vigilant against a virus still circulating in
poultry three years after it swept across much of Asia.

"Countries in the region are doing their best, but there
are limited resources available where animal health
surveillance is concerned," FAO spokeswoman Aphaluk Bhatiasevi
told Reuters.

But concerns about a cluster of human cases in Indonesia
eased after preliminary tests cleared six people in the
province of North Sumatra of bird flu.

The group lived in the same district where as many as seven
members of an extended family died from bird flu in May, but
tests showed they had common human flu.

Such cases fan fears the virus could mutate into a form
that passes easily between people, even though there is no
evidence that it has happened yet.

In Vietnam, where 42 people have died since late 2003, a
doctor at the provincial hospital treating the latest suspect
case said the man had a high fever after eating duck meat.

Test results are expected in a few days. The last confirmed
human infection in Vietnam was in November 2005.

Vietnamese officials said a failure to control its
waterfowl, including ducks which can be silent carriers of the
virus, made the country vulnerable to new outbreaks.

Ducks and other waterfowl had doubled to more than eight
million since February despite a ban on waterfowl hatching.

"We are unable to control the waterfowl stock," Nguyen Dang
Vang, head of the Agriculture Ministry's Husbandry Department,
told the Tien Phong (Vanguard) newspaper.

Adding to the risk, wild birds believed to carry H5N1 would
soon migrate from the north, he said.


Worried about the region's defenses, a senior FAO official
was dispatched to Laos this week to assess its surveillance
efforts after bird flu was found last month on a farm south of
the capital Vientiane, its first outbreak since 2004.

He will do the same next week in Thailand where the
government has been criticized for its slow response to the
latest outbreaks and the death of a teenager in late July.

Thailand has vowed to close the gaps in its surveillance
program and threatened farmers with fines or jail terms if they
do not report sick or dead poultry.

Thailand is also pushing ahead with the launch of a generic
version of the anti-flu drug Tamiflu, which is licensed by
Swiss drug maker Roche, in November.

The Government Pharmaceutical Organization, the state drug
firm, said its version would cost 70 baht ($1.9) a capsule, 40
percent cheaper than Roche's Tamiflu in the Thai market.

Efforts to build up regional cooperation against the virus
suffered a setback when Laos abruptly canceled a bird flu
meeting with Thai officials in Vientiane scheduled for

Their decision came days after senior Thai officials had
accused Laos of allowing the virus to spread into northeastern
Thailand, where it was found on 78 farms. Laos rejected the

"As neighbors, we want to build a close cooperation. Bird
flu can impact people in both our countries," Thai Foreign
Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said before calling his Lao
counterpart on the issue, the Thai News Agency reported.