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Bird Flu Becomes Growing Health Threat for Humans, Animals in Asia

Asia's battle with the bird flu virus has deepened with news of infected flocks in Laos and China.

China's official news agency reported that bird flu killed hundreds of ducks in a southern region. Earlier, Laos confirmed it had found the virus among birds, but both countries say they have no human cases of the disease.

The World Health Organization's director for Asia, Shigeru Omi, confirmed that there is an eighth human case in Vietnam. Speaking in Hanoi, he said the U.N. agency expects to see more cases in Vietnam.

More than 10 Asian countries, from South Korea to Pakistan, have confirmed outbreaks of bird flu among poultry. Only Thailand and Vietnam have reported human infections. Eight people are reported to have died, including a six-year-old in Thailand. All the victims apparently came in contact with sick birds.

Thai Health Ministry spokeswoman Nitaya Mahapol said the boy had been one of three confirmed cases of H5N1 infection in the country.

"The confirmed case, the third confirmed case, which was reported yesterday, has passed away," he said. "He died at around 10 o'clock this morning. It is the second fatality of the three confirmed cases."

Across the region millions chicken and other poultry are being culled at farms in a bid to halt the virus' spread. Many countries have banned poultry imports from infected countries.

Scientists say the avian virus may change so that it can spread from human to human. ""We are preparing ourselves for the worst situation," said N. Kumara Rai, the World Health Organization's director of communicable diseases and control in New Delhi. "If this avian flu exchanges genetic material with the human-influenza virus it might result in a big epidemic because human-to-human transmission will be made possible," he said.

Countries such as Singapore and Australia, which are free of bird flu, have stepped up measures to protect their poultry industries. Australia is using sniffer dogs and X-rays to prevent imports of bird products from infected areas.

After weeks of denying bird flu was spreading in the country, Thailand's government is preparing to meet Wednesday with health officials from nearly a dozen countries to plan a strategy to fight the virus.