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Indonesia to Enlist Students and Volunteers in Search for Bird Flu

Indonesia plans to send students and volunteers to join international health experts in house-to-house searches for poultry infected with the bird flu virus.

Indonesia's minister of agriculture, Anton Apriyantono, said experts from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the FAO, will train students how to spot sick poultry.

He said Indonesia needs all the help it can get in tracking the spread of the H5N1 bird flu virus, which has now become endemic in some parts of the country.

"For the first step we will use students to do surveillance. But next month with FAO, we are thinking not only students but also volunteers, as much as we can recruit," he said. "We don't want to do surveillance the whole of Indonesia, it's too big, the area is so big, so we will concentrate the endemic areas."

The virus is mainly concentrated on the islands of Java, Sumatra, and Sulawesi, but has been found throughout the archipelago.

The agriculture minister said details of the volunteer operation will be discussed during a two-day meeting that begins Friday in the city of Bogor.

According to the World Health Organization, seven people have tested positive for the H5N1 virus in Indonesia since July, and four of those died.

More than 60 people have died from bird flu in four Southeast Asian countries since the disease began a sweep through the region in late 2003, along with tens of millions of chickens.

So far, the human infections have come from close contact with sick poultry, but health experts say the virus could change into one that spreads easily from human to human, possibly setting off a global pandemic.

Western nations have recently begun showing concern about the disease, after the virus showed up in birds in several European countries over the last few weeks.

The WHO spokesman for the Western Pacific region, Peter Cordingley, says the agency expected the virus to spread eventually to Europe and beyond, but he continues to warn that Asia remains the most dangerous breeding ground.

"Obviously we're concerned about what's happening in Europe but we kind of expected this…They've got the means and the resources to keep this in the poultry if they really work hard at it, but you look back at Asia, this is still ground zero, and our assessment is exactly the same," he said. "This is where the global public health threat lies."

Indonesia is now testing dozens of chickens in Bali to see if they died from the bird flu, but officials say it will take about a week to get the results.