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Indonesia Acknowledges Avian Flu; Thailand Confirms Flu at 2 More Farms - 2004-01-25

Bird flu has reached a seventh country in Asia, while Thailand says it has confirmed outbreaks of the potentially deadly virus at two more poultry farms. The Indonesian government announced Sunday that millions of chickens have died of a type of avian influenza that has claimed at least six lives in Vietnam and sickened several people in Thailand. For weeks, Thailand and Indonesia insisted they were free of bird flu, and blamed other diseases for the deaths of millions of sick chickens. The virus also has been found in Taiwan, South Korea and Cambodia. Ron Corben in Bangkok reports.

More than 500 troops and prison inmates in the central Supanburi Province have joined Thailand's efforts to stem the spread of the avian-flu virus. The government is culling millions of chickens suspected of having been contaminated by the H5N1 virus.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, facing growing criticism over repeated official denials that bird flu was in Thailand, visited farmers in Supanburi province. He promised they would be compensated for their losses. Thailand's poultry trade is worth more than $2 billion a year.

Officials have said the government had suspected for weeks that the country had been hit by bird flu but said nothing to avoid panic until final test results arrived.

Bird flu has been found recently in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam. There were reports Sunday that it also had reached Indonesia.

At least six people in Vietnam have died of the flu, and Thailand says up to five people there have fallen ill. The disease was first found in humans in Hong Kong in 1997, when six people died of it.

Health experts warn if the avian virus combines with the human flu, there could be a devastating outbreak among people. There have been no reports of human-to-human transmission of the virus; all human victims appear to have caught it from birds.

The World Health Organization's (WHO) regional spokesman, Peter Cordingley, says a vaccine to protect humans from the virus may be several months away. "The virus that has hit Vietnam this time, it is mutated and the thinking is now, [it] may be four months or six months before we have a vaccine," he said.

Mr. Cordingley says the WHO wants to see a regional response similar to the effort made in containing the SARS virus last year. He said authorities needed to be open and transparent in dealing with such outbreaks.

"What we would like to see happen is a recognition by all the governments in the region that this outbreak - there has to be a national effort now to stop this virus spreading; it is becoming quite serious," said Mr. Cordingley.

Regional governments are desperate to halt the virus's spread, which is hurting the huge poultry industry and threatening local economies. It also presents a growing public health risk as the rising number of sick birds means more people are at risk of contracting the dangerous virus.

Thailand will hold meetings with several countries and international organizations this week as part of a regional effort to contain the bird flu outbreak before it spreads further.