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Bird Flu Spreads in Vietnam as Vigilance Wanes

Vietnam says avian flu has spread to two more provinces. The country has seen a string of outbreaks during the past month, including its first human case since 2005, and a United Nations official says the country's farmers might have lost some of their enthusiasm for fighting what is now an endemic disease. Matt Steinglass reports from Hanoi.

Vietnam's Department of Animal Health confirmed that avian flu had been found in poultry in Ha Nam and Vinh Phuc provinces. That means 12 Vietnamese provinces have reported outbreaks since the beginning of May.

The government is vaccinating chickens and ducks en masse against the H5N1 bird flu virus, as it has every fall and spring since 2004. Agriculture Minister Cao Duc Phat sent a message to provincial officials Wednesday urging them to vaccinate 100 percent of the country's ducks.

Hans Troedsson, the World Health Organization's representative in Hanoi, says unvaccinated ducks are at the center of the current outbreaks.

"There have been, unfortunately, flocks of ducks that have not been vaccinated, and that is where we see the outbreaks," he said.

Jeff Gilbert, an H5N1 expert at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's Hanoi office, says the fight against bird flu has lost some steam at the local level this year.

"There has been kind of a fatigue with things," he said. "The farmers and the field staff might not be so active to vaccinate the poultry. Some provinces, six weeks ago, confidently announced that they had finished their first injection of the round, which is two injections. But six weeks later, there Is no sign that they HAve finished their second one, which you would expect."

The WHO's Troedsson says he is confident the country's leaders are pushing hard to reinvigorate the control programs.

Vietnam has been widely seen as a bird flu success story, particularly since it stopped the spread of the disease to humans after suffering 93 cases and 42 deaths between 2003 and 2005.

But on May 25, the country announced its first new human case of H5N1 since 2005, a man who had recently slaughtered chickens and was being treated at a Hanoi hospital. If confirmed by the WHO, this would be Vietnam's 94th case.

The virus has become endemic in Southeast Asia, and Troedsson says a single human case is no cause for panic.

"We know that the virus has been circulating in the environment all the time," he said. "As one isolated case, it is not a surprise, and not alarming either."

Indonesia, meanwhile, has passed Vietnam as the country with the most confirmed human H5N1 cases, and deaths. The Indonesian government reported Wednesday that a 45-year-old man from Java who ate contaminated chickens had died of bird flu. This was the country's 98th human case, and its 78th fatality.

Most human cases have resulted from people handling infected birds. But health officials say if the virus mutates to a form easily transmitted from human to human, it could lead to a global pandemic that could put millions of people at risk.