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Asia on Alert for Bird Flu Following Death of Vietnam  Victim - 2004-01-24

Asia has gone on region-wide alert against the spread of bird flu, as a sixth human death was confirmed in Vietnam and a first suspected death was reported in Thailand.

Thai medical authorities on Saturday announced the death of a man suspected to have contracted bird flu, or the H5NI strain of the avian virus. The 56-year-old man, whose name was not released, raised fighting cocks just east of Bangkok.

At the same time, the World Health Organization confirmed a sixth bird flu death in Vietnam. The 13-year-old boy was the first victim seen in the southern part of the country, but a young girl from the same area was reported in critical condition from the disease.

On Saturday, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra denied that his government had covered up the existence of bird flu in the country. The government had been insisting for weeks that Thai chickens were dying of cholera, not bird flu.

Mr. Thaksin said his government had been trying to balance health issues with economic concerns. He said that if the government had announced the disease before it was confirmed, it would have caused damage to the country's billion-dollar poultry export business.

Following Friday's confirmation of bird flu in Thailand, however, countries across East and Southeast Asia immediately began banning the import of Thai poultry products. The European Union did the same.

Millions of chickens have been slaughtered recently in Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, in an attempt to contain the disease. On Friday, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization confirmed the presence of H5NI in chickens in Cambodia.

The acting WHO representative to Thailand, Doctor Somchai Peprapakorn, says two experts from the WHO are due in Bangkok Monday at the request of the government to help advise on preventive measures.

Dr. Shomchai says the region, and the world, are threatened by the possibility that the virus could mutate into a much more serious form of influenza. In that case, he says, it would pose a greater danger than last year's outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

"If the bird flu can mix itself with the human influenza and then get a new disease which can carry the characteristic that is very virulent and at the same time carry the ability of transmitting from human to human, then the world would face a new threat which is very, very much [more] dangerous than SARS," he said.

On Saturday, Singapore and Malaysia also suspended the import of poultry from Indonesia, following the revelation that chickens on the island of Bali have been dying by the thousands during the past three months.

The government in Jakarta says Balinese chickens have been dying from Newcastle disease, a viral infection that is harmless to humans, but in light of the regional situation, the government said it would double-check to make sure bird flu is not involved.