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China, Vietnam Confirm New Bird Flu Outbreaks

China and Vietnam have confirmed new outbreaks of avian influenza in thousands of birds. Both nations say they are taking steps to fight new infections.

Chinese officials this week confirmed that an outbreak discovered on October 26 killed nearly 9,000 chickens in China's northeastern province of Liaoning. It was the fourth outbreak of avian flu among birds reported in the country since October 14.

So far, China has reported no human cases of bird flu, but health experts say the country is especially vulnerable because it has one of the world's highest concentrations of domesticated poultry: 14 billion birds, plus wild birds that migrate through its territory.

Despite its economic boom, much of China's healthcare infrastructure is in shambles - especially in the countryside. The Chinese government knows this and has launched programs to slowly rebuild the system.

"In large parts of China, especially in the countryside, over the last 20 or 30 years, the health system has been crumbling," said Roy Wadia, a spokesman for the World Health Organization in Beijing. "You've got problems in terms of being able to provide basic health care to people. Surveillance is key to containing any outbreak, and to preventing any pandemic…not only in the animal sector, of course, but then you have to be able to also survey the human population."

He also says China is also prone to a severe outbreak, because of the concentration of both birds and people, but he says similar conditions exist on a smaller scale in Thailand, and in Vietnam, where officials say 3,000 birds died or were culled this week northeast of Hanoi.

The H5N1 virus, which has struck bird flocks from Asia to Eastern Europe, has killed at least 62 people in Southeast Asia since it reappeared two years ago. The virus first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997, when it killed six people. In all or almost all cases thus far, doctors have said the victims were infected by having direct contact with sick birds.

However, scientists worry the virus may mutate and become transmissible from human to human. This, they say, could cause a major pandemic, because humans have built up no immunity to this particular strain of virus.