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Indonesia Plans Less Aggressive Approach to Containing Bird Flu

As governments throughout the region take vigorous steps to contain the spread of bird flu, Indonesia plans a less aggressive approach.

In contrast to the reactions of the governments of Thailand and Vietnam, Indonesian officials say they will not carry out a mass cull of chickens that might be infected with bird flu.

The minister of agriculture, Bungaran Saragih, has told reporters that, because the virus is so widespread, culling would reduce the poultry population too drastically. He says economic considerations played a part in the decision to plan only limited culls.

The regional government in the east of the island of Java says it is intending to kill nearly four million birds, but adds that the meat would then be sold to the public.

Although Indonesian health officials say that meat from infected chickens should be safe for consumption after proper cooking, the East Java plan drew sharp criticism from international officials.

Dr. Georg Petersen, the head of the World Health Organization's Indonesia office, said "the main reason you should destroy chickens from infected farms is that the dead chickens should not infect others and other chickens, so to destroy chickens and burn or bury the carcasses is a way of hindering infection of new chickens from dead ones."

The WHO recommends killing all birds in areas where the flu virus has been found and burying their carcasses and all waste. The United Nations agency also says all farmers and workers involved in the culling should wear masks and protective clothing. The virus is carried in the waste and secretions of the chickens.

By conservative estimates, about four million of Indonesia's 800 million chickens have already died from the virus. The fear is that, like elsewhere, the influenza will infect humans, although the Ministry of Health said Wednesday they had had no reports of people being infected.

The H5N1 virus has killed at least eight people in Vietnam and Thailand in recent weeks.

The Indonesian government is already coming under fire for its handling of the crisis. Evidence has emerged that agriculture officials warned of an outbreak of the H5N1 strain of the virus as early as November, although senior officials deny they were told.

Observers warn that the government's reluctance to act decisively now could backfire, necessitating much harsher measures later.