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Vietnam Acts to Control Bird Flu as Deaths Continue

Vietnam has banned imports of poultry from neighboring countries following a series of human deaths from avian flu during the past month. Authorities are taking drastic measures in hope of containing the disease before the Tet holiday.

For Vietnamese, the Tet lunar new year holiday is a time for gathering with family, for relaxing, and most importantly for honoring ancestors with a traditional feast of boiled chicken. But for this year's holiday, in February, poultry will be off the menu for many families, because of the avian flu, which has killed several people in the past month.

Housewife Tam Thanh Thuy, who was shopping in a Hanoi market, said she stopped eating chicken last month when she heard radio reports of the new bird flu outbreak.

Ms. Tam says she does not eat chicken because she is scared that the bird flu will affect her family's health. For Tet, she plans to buy pork instead of chicken for the ancestral ceremony.

Vietnam has been the country hardest hit by bird flu, with at least 24 deaths. Since last year, at least 46 people in Asia have died of the flu, caused by the H5N1 virus. After fading away over the summer months, the virus now appears to be back with a vengeance, infecting chickens, ducks, and wild birds in 18 of the country's 64 provinces.

In response, Vietnamese authorities have ordered more than a quarter-million birds slaughtered in an effort to contain the H5N1 virus, which has spread from the southern Mekong Delta into the central and northern regions.

Ho Chi Minh City in the south has even banned the traditional wet markets where customers buy live chickens and watch them being slaughtered.

Vietnam is trying to apply the lessons learned during last year's avian flu outbreak and the original outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997. The World Health Organization supports those efforts, but WHO representative Hans Troedsson says that authorities are fighting an uphill battle with limited resources.

"There are measures that could be taken," he said. "Some of them are being taken, but we also have to understand that in a big country like Vietnam to go on scale with control measures both takes time and resources."

The biggest fear is that the virus may change, allowing it to be easily transmitted directly from human to human. That has not happened yet, but there is still danger that contact with chickens - or even eating improperly cooked poultry - could infect more people.

For now, the best hope of containing the bird flu lies with controlling outbreaks in poultry. But officials are working hard to find a medical solution. This week, Vietnamese scientists started testing what they hope will be a successful vaccine for bird flu. The first results of the testing will be available in about three weeks.