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Bird Flu Reappears to Haunt Indochina

After a seven-month break, during which it received praise for its prevention efforts, Thailand has again reported a human death from bird flu. Across the border, Laos has reported an outbreak of the virus among chickens near the capital, the first since 2004.

The Lao Government has confirmed an outbreak of the H5N1 bird flu virus on a farm 25 kilometers from Vientiane, in which about 2,500 chickens recently perished.

The outbreak was in the same region hit by bird flu in 2004, leading to the death of more than 140,000 birds. In the recent outbreak, laboratory tests conducted in Laos have now been confirmed by Thai scientists.

The new cases have appeared despite efforts by the countries of the Greater Mekong Sub-region - Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma - to fight the spread of the virus.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization representative in Laos, Leena Kirjavainen, says the government there responded quickly to the new outbreak.

"The response has been very good and very prompt and very, very open. Immediately when this outbreak happened they took immediate action - the bird flu teams and the Department of Livestock and [the] animal health centers," said Kirjavainen.

Laos has not yet had a human death from the virus, which has killed more than 130 people in the past three years, mostly in Southeast Asia. Vietnam and Indonesia have each confirmed more than 40 deaths, and the number in Thailand has now reached 15. Vietnam has not reported a human case during 2006.

Peter Cordingley, the World Health Organization spokesman based in Manila, recently warned that Indonesia remains a region of concern for further outbreaks, especially during the cooler months later in the year.

"We do know that the virus is firmly embedded in the environment in Indonesia, so we fully expect problems to occur sporadically during the warmer weather, and we fear that things may return to very serious again once the cooler weather reappears in Indonesia," he said.

Thailand, which has been praised by the WHO for its work in containing bird flu, is dealing with its first human death from the virus in seven months. The 17-year-old Thai boy was reported to have contracted the virus from fighting birds. On Friday, Thai health officials announced the establishment of special medical teams to diagnose and prescribe treatments for new patients.

Most human victims of the disease have contracted it from infected birds, but there have been several cases in which the disease was passed among family members.

Health experts fear the virus will mutate into a form that can easily pass among humans, raising the prospect of a global pandemic in which millions could die.