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Southeast Asian Nations Step Up Bird Flu Assistance


Five Southeast Asia nations are stepping up cooperation to fight bird flu. Under their agreement, Thailand and Vietnam will share their expertise in containing flu outbreaks through training programs and mobile laboratories to improve detection.

More than 130 people have died from the H5N1 avian virus in the past three years, most of them in Southeast Asia.

Vietnam has recorded 42 human deaths, making it one of the hardest hit countries. Thailand has had 14 fatalities. However, they have reported no human cases so far this year.

Flu experts say that record is the result of new surveillance programs and education campaigns in both countries. These are relatively low-cost and effective ways of teaching farmers how to prevent bird flu and how to spot outbreaks quickly.

Peter Cordingley, a World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman, says these programs show what developing countries can do to fight avian flu.

"Thailand have pretty well mastered the situation at home although not complete control, but they're doing very, very well. Vietnam is doing relatively well. These countries have developed the expertise are now beginning to help countries that don't have the resources," he noted.

The H5N1 virus is most deadly to poultry, it has killed or led to the culling of tens of millions of chickens, ducks and geese on three continents since it reappeared in Southeast Asia in 2003. Most human victims contracted the virus from sick birds. However, international experts fear the virus will mutate and begin to spread easily among humans, which could lead to a pandemic that would kill millions of people.

To protect their people and their poultry industries, Thailand, Vietnam, Burma, Laos and Cambodia have agreed to raise their cooperation in the fight against avian flu.

The agreement hopes to build on the experience of Thailand and Vietnam.

This may be crucial for Laos, Burma and Cambodia - three of the poorest and least developed countries in Asia. International experts, including from the WHO, have warned they are the least prepared to fight bird flu. And, since the five countries share borders, containing the virus in one will be key to containing it throughout Southeast Asia.

Cordingley says Cambodia and Laos in particular need support.

"Laos is an example of a country that is struggling," he added. "Cambodia needs a lot of help as well. So we're looking to see a much higher level of information exchange and assistance."

Virachai Plasai is a director general of international economic affairs with Thailand's Foreign Ministry. He says the five countries' bird flu strategy concentrates on small communities.

"We focus on how we respond to any possible outbreak based on surveillance, community-based methods, village volunteer system, but also early detection through setting up of mobile laboratories and subsequently national laboratories," he noted.

Under the regional agreement, Thailand will train people from Laos, Cambodia and Burma on how to create village volunteer systems to find bird flu outbreaks and will help them provide "transparent and updated" information to all the countries. Virachai says this particularly is crucial if the prevention program is to succeed.

So far, Laos has reported no human deaths from the virus, although in 2004, there was a modest outbreak among poultry.

The U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization representative in Laos, Leena Kirjavainen, says since then the international community has built up surveillance programs in Laos and animal health facilities.

For instance, the United States has given $1.5 million to teach Lao farmers to report sick birds and warn them not to eat birds that die of illness. Many human victims have contracted H5N1 by handling and eating sick birds.

Despite the international support, Kirjavainen says serious challenges remain. The first problem is that most farmers in Laos, like millions across Southeast Asia, let chickens and ducks wander freely around their homes. That increases the risk the birds will catch the virus and spread it to humans.

"It's free range and it's very much household backyard production," she said. "And poultry production - it's mainly women and children who take care of the backyard poultry and so their awareness building and understanding what to do is critical."

The next problem is the sheer difficulty of travel in many parts of Laos, which has poor roads and communications systems.

"We have had cases in the northern part when we have sent a team," she added. "You have to drive first with the car maybe a couple of days and then you go by boat, and the rest of the way by walking to the villages. It is a big challenge."

And, she says, once investigators get to isolated areas, it takes days to get tissue samples back to a laboratory to determine whether birds died of flu or other diseases.

Experts say it is crucial to get new systems in place in Laos, as well as Cambodia and Burma soon. The peak flu season comes at the end of the year, when the weather cools, and having the right tools now could well prevent serious outbreaks then.

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