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Asian Governments Step Up Anti-Bird Flu Measures Ahead of Lunar New Year Holiday

The World Health Organization and Asian governments have stepped up measures to curb the spread of bird flu ahead of the Lunar New Year celebrations.

On the eve of the Lunar New Year, millions of Asians are flocking to markets to buy ingredients for their favorite celebratory meals.

Chicken dishes are traditional fixtures in many of these meals. And many people insist on cooking only freshly killed chickens, not frozen ones.

With the deadly bird flu virus wreaking havoc in Asia's poultry farms, governments and health experts are worried that the virus could further spread during the holiday.

"We are now coming up to a time that has a lot of risk factors," said Dr. Hans Troedsson, the World Health Organization representative in Vietnam. "There is a lot of poultry consumption, handling of poultry, as well as a lot of mobility. People are visiting friends and relatives."

Vietnam has had the highest number of human fatalities from bird flu. But since mid-December, no new outbreak of avian influenza among poultry has been reported and no human cases have emerged for more than two months.

But Dr. Troedsson says people cannot afford to be complacent. The Vietnamese government and the WHO have been broadcasting public health awareness messages ahead of the celebrations for the Lunar New Year - known there as Tet.

Dr. Troedsson said the messages are simple but are key in preventing bird flu from spreading further. "It's to avoid contact with sick and dead poultry, that all the slaughtering of poultry is done in safe conditions - since we know that this is a high risk factor - and that at the household level, people are really cooking their poultry products thoroughly and washing hands if they are handling live poultry or poultry products," he said.

Hong Kong's health department has also urged people to take precautions against bird flu by observing good personal hygiene and avoiding contact with birds when traveling to affected areas.

Also on Friday, a WHO team completed an investigation of Indonesia's public markets, amid worries that Asia's notoriously dirty marketplaces, where live chickens are sold and slaughtered, are a point of transmission for bird flu. On Thursday, a Jakarta chicken seller died from bird flu.

Alex von Hildebrand, WHO's Southeast Asia advisor for environmental health, says that although the direct link between markets and the transmission of the virus has not been proven, hygiene needs to be improved. "We recommend the government look at several issues such as better sanitation, access to safe water and sufficient water, better management of the wastes and separation between spaces where the slaughtering goes on and where the birds are kept, that would make it more difficult for an eventual transmission of bird flu," said von Hildebrand.

Bird flu has killed more than 80 people, almost all of them in East Asia, since 2003.