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South, Southeast Asian Countries Battle Bird Flu Outbreaks


South and Southeast Asian countries are grappling with new outbreaks of bird flu as winter weather sweeps across the region. As Anjana Pasricha reports from New Delhi, the latest outbreaks are still confined primarily to poultry, but one new human death has been reported in Vietnam.

Health officials in India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Vietnam have ordered the culling of millions of chickens as they attempt to control fresh outbreaks of bird flu.

In India, the deadly H5N1 strain of the bird flu virus has spread rapidly in recent weeks among poultry flocks in the eastern state of West Bengal - a densely populated region of more than 25 million people.

Indian Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar says the culling of affected poultry needs to be speeded up. He says villagers are resisting the culling of birds because there have been delays in granting them compensation.

"Authorities in West Bengal admit they are falling behind in attempts to slaughter the affected birds, and have appealed to other states for assistance," said Pawar.

"There have been no human infections reported yet in India, but health officials in West Bengal fear that ignorance of the disease is increasing the chances of its spread to humans. There are reports of children playing with chickens in affected villages, and dead birds being dumped in ponds. Human beings can catch bird flu by coming into direct contact with infected poultry."

"In Bangladesh, which adjoins West Bengal, the virus has spread to nearly half of the country," said Pawar. "The government has been struggling to contain the disease since last March."

Thailand has reported its first outbreak of bird flu in 10 months in a region north of Bangkok. Officials say more than four thousand chickens have already been slaughtered in the country, which is among those hardest hit by the virus since it reappeared in Asia in 2003," said Pawar. "Vietnam has confirmed that bird flu killed one man in the north of the country, the first human fatality from the disease there this year. Bird flu has previously claimed 47 lives in Vietnam.

"East Asian countries such as Vietnam and China are worried about the increased risk of animal-related diseases during the lunar New Year holiday next month, when travel from one region to another and poultry consumption rise rapidly," Pawar said.

The World Health Organization's spokeswoman in New Delhi, Shima Roy, says the risks in Asia are especially high because poultry is so much a part of daily life.

"All in all it is a worry because we are dealing with very dense populations of animals and humans and their interaction," said Roy. "Poultry is part and parcel of our lives here in Southeast Asia, it is not possible to eliminate it from our lifestyles, so we should be vigilant and practice safe methods of keeping poultry."

The H5N1 virus is mainly an animal disease, but there are fears it could mutate and spread rapidly among humans, sparking a global pandemic. The WHO says more than 200 people have died from bird flu so far, mostly in Asia.