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Farmers, Officials Fear New Bird Flu Outbreak in Vietnam

An outbreak of avian influenza, or bird flu, has dealt a severe blow this year to Southeast Asia's poultry industry, destroying farmers' flocks and upsetting regional poultry markets. The disease has also killed 32 people in Thailand and Vietnam, but so far has not developed the ability to move easily from human to human. Nevertheless, officials say bird flu will be around for some time, and this has farmers and health officials worried.

It is late afternoon and the sun is sinking over farmer Kieu's one-hectare plot of land, which is surrounded by rice paddies on the outskirts of Hanoi.

Several cement chicken coops line the back wall of his compound. The coops are silent now as his new flock of three-day old chicks sleeps in the afternoon heat.

Sitting on the floor of his living room, sipping tea, Farmer Kieu says he discovered the first dead chicken in January, and alerted the veterinarian office in Hanoi. The inspectors said there was bird flu on his farm, and they killed all his chickens.

Farmer Kieu used to raise egg-laying chickens. He now has 3000 chickens raised for their meat. He says egg-laying chickens take two years to produce and he cannot afford to live without any income for that long.

Nguyen Minh, a specialist in the animal husbandry office of the Ministry of Agriculture, says more than two million chickens were killed in this district alone. It was hard on the farmers.

Mr. Minh says the farmers received some compensation for their flocks and support from social agencies. Now, he says, his office watches closely to catch any new outbreaks before they can spread.

In Hanoi, Long Bien market is the area's main poultry market. It was here that bird flu was first detected in Hanoi.

It is dawn and the market is bustling with shoppers and vendors and thousands of ducks and chickens.

Ms. Hiem is a vendor from the Hanoi area. She says before the bird flu outbreak she would sell about 200 chickens a day. She now sells one-half that number, but still makes money.

She says that because of bird flu, the number of people raising chickens is going down, so the number of chickens is low and the price is increasing.

The outbreak of bird flu in early 2004 dealt a severe blow to the poultry industries of several countries in Southeast Asia. More than 100 million birds died of the disease or were slaughtered to prevent its spread. Roughly, 44 million of them were in Vietnam.

Peter Horby, a specialist on communicable diseases with the World Health Organization (WHO), says the situation in Vietnam is much better now, with only isolated outbreaks in parts of the country. But he warns that the disease is far from being eradicated, and there will be a continuing battle to control it.

"With the winter coming up, when we know that influenza viruses in the bird population tend to be more active, I think we can expect to see minor flare-ups, and it's important that there's awareness for those and rapid response to them so that it doesn't become a situation out of control again," says Mr. Horby.

Some 30 people in Vietnam and Thailand have also died from the disease, mostly people who worked or lived in close contact with live chickens. One case of probable human-to-human transmission of the virus has been reported. Mr. Horby says if the virus develops the ability to move rapidly from human to human, it could cause an epidemic, possibly even the kind of world-wide pandemic that occurred three times during the 20th Century.

"There's increasing concern that a pandemic, if not imminent, may be not too far away," he adds.

He says officials are preparing for any outbreak by educating the public on how to avoid contracting the disease. They also watch for what he calls human clusters of avian flu.

He adds that the threat has led to increased cooperation between animal and human health agencies at both the local and international levels. And this, he says, may go a long way toward preventing the massive outbreak that devastated the poultry industry here earlier this year.