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Southeast Asia Struggles to Contain Bird Flu  - 2004-09-16

Southeast Asia remains on alert to fresh outbreaks of the avian bird flu, with Malaysia tightening quarantine restrictions on the northern state of Kelantan. The World Health Organization continues to warn the virus could be a problem for years.

Malaysian authorities Thursday tightened controls and increased surveillance and testing for more outbreaks of the bird flu.

The tougher measures include house-to-house checks in the state of Kelantan, which borders Thailand, as well as increased testing for the virus in the nearby states of Perlis and Perak. Health officials say fighting cocks smuggled in from Thailand brought the virus into Malaysia.

So far, Malaysia has reported no fatalities from the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has taken the lives of at least 28 people this year in Vietnam and Thailand.

Malaysian medical authorities are monitoring four people, including three children, who have been hospitalized with symptoms of the H5N1 virus.

Thailand this week decided against vaccinating birds for flu, after veterinarians warned that vaccines might help the virus mutate more quickly and become even more dangerous to humans.

Hans Wagner, a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization official, approves of the decision.

"That's the right decision for the time being," said Hans Wgner. "In this last week we have only seen rather scattered outbreaks and not outbreaks in a dimension as of the beginning of the year."

Vietnam Thursday said it has culled hundreds of sick ducks and chickens near the capital Hanoi to try to contain the spread of the flu. Authorities there also are waiting on tests to verify whether a Vietnamese man died of bird flu.

Peter Cordingley, the World Health Organization spokesman for the western Pacific, says that despite the efforts, he remains fearful of a major outbreak of the avian flu.

"It has to be seriously taken into account by the regional governments that if we don't do something, if the WHO doesn't do something we will be facing a crisis of global proportions," he said.

Mr. Cordingley says the H5N1 virus appears entrenched in Southeast Asia and it may take at least "a couple of years" to get rid of it.