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Experts Say Immediate Action Needed to Contain Bird Flu in Burma, Afghanistan

The United Nations has dispatched supplies to Burma to help authorities there contain a possible outbreak of bird flu in chickens, as Afghanistan fears its own possible outbreak. Both countries are awaiting tests to confirm that the birds are infected with the deadly H5N1 virus.

As Burmese authorities cull thousands of chickens, officials in Afghanistan warn people to avoid touching chickens after initial tests indicated bird flu outbreaks in both countries.

Both countries have sent tissue samples for further tests.

Even before tests were done, international health officials were taking no chances that the virus found in these countries is the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu. The virus has ravaged poultry farms in several countries and killed nearly 100 people, mostly in Asia, since 2003.

With poor veterinary and health facilities in both countries, experts worry that the governments may not be able to cope with full-blown outbreaks not only among poultry but also in humans.

Experts say urgent government response is crucial in containing the virus. Serge Verniau is with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, or F.A.O., in Afghanistan.

"There is urgent, practical action to be taken, to avoid movement in an area, especially of birds," said Verniau. "That is something that needs coordination with the authorities, the police, the army."

Experts say educating people about the virus also is key. U.N. agencies have started public awareness campaigns on bird flu in Afghanistan but in Burma, the tightly controlled media have so far not reported on the possible outbreak.

But Tang Zhengping, the F.A.O representative in Burma, says the military government's response otherwise has been satisfactory - with prompt testing and notification of international agencies.

"The central laboratory analyzed [the sample] on the eighth of March and after three days sent official report to the F.A.O. Then on Monday, they also issued the official statement for the public," he said. "The statement was distributed to the state and division and all townships."

However, Tang says the isolated nation faces challenges in fighting the disease.

"At this moment, it's the capacity of diagnostic laboratory, the lack of essential equipment and facilities. They need a lot of rapid test kits, more personal protection equipment and some materials for disinfection," he said.

The F.A.O dispatched those supplies to Burma Wednesday.

Experts say surveillance is also a major problem in these countries. Despite a ban on importing and breeding chickens in certain regions of Afghanistan, officials say it is difficult to monitor poultry farming in a rugged country with porous borders.

The F.A.O. also urges both governments to compensate affected poultry farmers to encourage them to report sick birds and help cull them.

Scientists have warned that the bird flu virus might mutate to a form easily transmitted between humans and cause a global pandemic that could kill millions.