Asian nations forge united front against bird flu
BANGKOK: Asian nations agreed Wednesday to join forces and step up their fight against the bird flu outbreak as it took an ominous foothold in China and claimed two more lives in Vietnam.
“Our individual efforts must be reinforced by effective regional and international cooperation in view of the magnitude of the challenge,” Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai said after crisis talks here.
Ministers and officials “pledged to do more” to combat the spread of the disease which has erupted in 10 Asian nations and triggered a mass cull of some 20 million chickens and other poultry.
The deepening crisis sent shockwaves around the region’s stock markets, with losses on bourses in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Bombay blamed on fears the outbreak could spin out of control and harm Asian economies. China said on Wednesday it was battling three separate outbreaks of bird flu hundreds of miles (kilometres) apart, sparking fears the virus has already spread across the country.
Some 14,000 ducks were culled at a farm in Guangxi province near Vietnam and all poultry within a five-mile radius was quarantined. In the central provinces of Henan and Hubei, officials said more than 2,000 chickens were culled.
The British publication New Scientist said the outbreak probably began a year ago in southern China, with a combination of cover-up and questionable farming practices allowing it to turn into the current crisis.
New Scientist, citing unidentified health experts, says the H5N1 virus is suspected to have spread widely following a mass vaccination of poultry flocks by Chinese farmers. A genetic mismatch in the vaccine meant the birds harboured the virus instead of destroying it, and passed it to other flocks when traded. The World Health Organisation (WHO) urged the Chinese authorities to be open and transparent following attempts last year to cover up the full scale of the SARS epidemic which began in China.
No human infections have been reported in China but Vietnam said that two sisters who died last week had tested positive for bird flu, taking the death toll in the country to eight. Another two children have died in Thailand.
Ministers and officials from the affected nations of Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam attended the Bangkok talks. Taiwan and Pakistan have reported weaker strains of the virus. The delegates agreed on disease-control measures and joint research. But with a view to Asia’s lucrative tourism industry, they said that while there was not evidence of human-to-human transmission “travel restrictions are unnecessary”.
The meeting followed warnings from the WHO that the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus could combine with a human influenza and cause a pandemic spread between humans that could claim millions of human lives.
The WHO said 11 pharmaceutical firms want to help develop a vaccine for humans, but it will take at least four months to produce if a pandemic is declared.
A virologist working with the WHO in Manila said that more than three out of every four people confirmed to have the deadly H5N1 strain was likely to die.
So far there have been no cases of human-to-human transmission of bird flu, the scenario which most concerns the WHO. Scientists believe those infected had direct contact with live poultry or their droppings.
Thailand admitted Wednesday it had “screwed up” in its handling of the bird flu outbreak which it confirmed last Friday after weeks of denials and said that those responsible would be punished.
One of the worst-hit countries, it said that a third of its provinces were now affected, including the capital Bangkok — a sprawling megalopolis of 10 million people..
Health officials also reported that a Thai woman suspected of having bird flu had died, bringing the toll to six suspected deaths in addition to two confirmed fatalities.
Indonesia, where a three-year-old boy was being tested Wednesday to determine if he is the country’s first bird flu case, has refused to follow other nations in ordering a mass cull of chickens despite pleas from the WHO. Hong Kong, which grappled with an outbreak of the virus in 1997 that killed six, on Wednesday stepped up anti-flu measures, while Taiwanese authorities asked thousands of poultry and pig farmers to be vaccinated against the virus.
The devastation of the region’s poultry industry also continued, with Singapore placing an immediate ban on poultry products and live birds from China, and Sri Lanka banning all Asian poultry products.
The European Union also Wednesday suspended the import of pet birds, such as parrots, from Southeast Asia, following discussions with the 15 member nations. —AFP