South Korea's army has been called out to battle a new enemy: an epidemic of avian influenza. At least 700 soldiers have been dispatched to farms across South Korea in the past few days to help slaughter chicken and ducks. The slaughter is part of a government effort to stop the spread of a bird influenza virus known as H5N1.
Nearly one million birds have been killed since the outbreak began. Prime Minister Goh Kun on Sunday ordered the government to purchase 2.5 million chickens for slaughter.
South Korea's Agriculture Ministry says the virus has been detected at farms up to 230 kilometers from where the bird flu was first found early this month. Kim Chang-sup is in charge of preventing epidemics for the Agriculture Ministry.
Mr. Kim says the government is trying to find out quickly how far the bird flu has spread and come up with countermeasures to quarantine the affected areas. There are no reports of the outbreak spreading beyond South Korea yet. In nearby Japan, Hideyuki Shimada, the director of the country's poultry association says his organization is highly concerned.
Mr. Shimada says if the virus enters Japan it would be chaos. He says measures are being taken to prevent that from happening, including asking the government to make sure it keeps poultry farmers up to date with the latest information.
Scientists say they are trying to determine if the H5N1 strain is the same one that crossed from chickens to humans in Hong Kong in 1997, killing six people. That prompted the government to slaughter every chicken and duck in the city, and to impose tough rules on sales of live and freshly butchered poultry.
Virus samples have been sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States for identification, but results may not be available for several weeks.
Government health officials in South Korea play down the risk to humans, and say none of the 500 poultry workers tested have shown signs of infection. The disease is spread through contact with birds, not through the air. Milder outbreaks of the bird flu have hit South Korea periodically since 1996.
Bird flu outbreaks strike in many areas of the world. Hong Kong and Guangzhou province in southern China are particularly prone to poultry viruses.
South Korean authorities say consumption of fowl has significantly declined in the past week and chicken exports have been virtually halted. The outbreak has also caused the price of chickens in South Korea to plunge 30 percent.