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Bird Flu Spreads through Asia

Authorities across Southeast Asia are culling millions of chickens in an effort to contain a fast-spreading strain of bird flu. On Monday, Thailand reported its first human death from bird flu, one of three confirmed cases of the disease in the kingdom, and said 10 others are suspected of having the disease.

Thai officials Monday said a six-year-old boy infected with bird flu died during the night in a Bangkok hospital.

Six people in Vietnam are also known to have died from the disease, bringing to seven the total number of confirmed fatalities in the region.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra urged people not to panic, because the disease is not easily transmitted to humans.

Mr. Thaksin said officials of Thailand's health and livestock ministries are working with the World Health Organization and other international groups. They are to meet Wednesday with ministers from other countries in the region to discuss the outbreak.

Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said they are seeking cooperation in several areas, including the exchange of information.

"And how can each country, especially developing countries, receive assistance to be able to identify through our laboratory system what is this particular disease and how to cope with it," he said.

At least eight countries in Asia have reported bird flu in their chicken populations. Cambodia, Indonesia and Pakistan are the latest to confirm the disease, and there are reports of birds falling ill in Laos.

The four countries have begun culling chicken flocks, but say no human cases have been detected as yet.

Some scientists say they also expect the virus to be found in China, although tests to date there have been negative.

World Health Organization officials have voiced concern about the speed with which the virus has been spreading, and they warn that in humans, the latest strain is more resistant to common antiviral drugs than the strain that caused a bird flu outbreak in Hong Kong seven years ago.

However, the WHO representative in Thailand, Bjorn Melgaard, said that current fears are out of proportion to the actual risk of the disease.

"There are people who get the disease, but it's not a huge epidemic that we are facing so far," said Mr. Melgaard. "More importantly, we've seen no evidence of human-to-human transmission."

Bird flu spreads rapidly on chicken farms. Humans contract the disease only by coming into contact with infected birds. But officials fear the virus could mutate to a form that humans can transmit to one another.

Around Asia, more than 10 million chickens have died of the virus, or have been culled on government orders to prevent the disease's spread, causing severe hardship among poultry farmers and exporters.