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Bird flu claims first Thai victim

Vaccine 'months away'

Chickens at a Thai poultry farm are collected to be slaughtered.
Chickens at a Thai poultry farm are collected to be slaughtered.

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Nations hit by bird flu

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BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) -- Thai officials have confirmed the country's first human death from bird flu, while Indonesia has become the latest nation to be hit by the outbreak that is spreading rapidly throughout Asia.

Authorities said Monday that one of two Thai boys sick with the virus died, bringing to at least seven the number of people killed by the disease.

Six deaths have been confirmed in Vietnam -- the hardest hit nation by bird flu -- and all but one were children.

Thai officials are now saying they have at least 10 more suspected cases of humans with the deadly virus, with four of those suspected cases already dead.

"It is so far confirmed that two cases have contracted bird flu and another probable case is from Pitsanulok province," Department of Disease Control Director-General Charal Trinwuthipong is quoted by Reuters as saying Monday.

"Another 10 cases are suspected of contracting bird flu. Of those, four have died, but the lab tests have yet to determine cause of death," he said.

The four dead all had been in contact with chickens, the director-general said.

The Thai government only confirmed an outbreak of bird flu -- a strain of H5N1 avian influenza -- on Friday after days of denying accusations from farmers and opposition legislators that the nation had been hit by the dangerous disease.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra conceded on the weekend his government suspected for "a couple of weeks" the country was facing an outbreak of bird flu but decided not to reveal the outbreak until Friday in order to avoid mass panic.

Thaksin's admission comes as his government faces increasing criticism over its handling of the outbreak amid claims of a cover up.

Observers say the outbreak is also fast becoming the biggest crisis Thaksin has faced as leader, tarnishing his image of invulnerability and potentially creating a wave of public backlash.

With farmers and the public too frightened to carry out a cull in the central province of Suphanburi, Thai military troops and prisoners were dispatched for the slaughter, placing the birds in plastic bags for burial in deep pits. (Full story)

By Sunday nine million chickens had been slaughtered and already the outbreak has been devastating for Thailand's massive poultry industry -- one of the top five exporters of chickens in the world.

On Sunday, China banned imports of Thai chicken products -- the latest nation to do so. The EU and Japan slapped similar bans on Thailand last week following confirmation of bird flu in the country.

Indonesia hit

Also on Sunday, Indonesia confirmed it was the latest nation to have been hit by the disease, joining South Korea, Japan and Cambodia.

Though millions of poultry had died or been culled, the only cases of the disease hitting humans have been in Vietnam and Thailand. Taiwan has recorded a case of a different strain, H5N2 from animals in a poultry farm.

Indonesian officials had earlier denied claims of the disease's presence there.

The Jakarta Post reported on Monday authorities may have covered up the outbreak at the behest of politically connected businessmen who feared it would harm their financial interests.

Thaksin has come under fire for his government's handling of the outbreak.
Thaksin has come under fire for his government's handling of the outbreak.

Though the disease had hit millions of chickens in the world's fourth most populous country, senior agriculture official Sofjan Sudardjat said the virus had not yet crossed over to humans.

Scientists fear the flu strain is fast changing and might mutate from a bird-to-bird disease to a human-to-human disease.

So far it is believed all the human victims caught the disease from fowl and there has been no evidence of person-to-person transmission.

As scientist work to understand the virus, The World Health Organization says a vaccine for the disease is at least six months away because the disease keeps on mutating.

If the disease mutated enough to allow human-to-human transmission, health experts warn that the virus could become a bigger health crisis than SARS. That disease, also a virus, killed nearly 800 people worldwide last year.

The WHO is also highly concerned because the bird flu virus appears resistant to cheaper anti-viral drugs used to treat regular influenza.

"This is a disease that's appearing in the developing world. So what you want is affordable drugs," WHO spokesman Dick Thompson said.

"Should this move from human to human -- and it hasn't yet, I want to stress that -- then it's going to be a real challenge."

"The more widespread it becomes, the greater the possibility that the (bird flu) virus could become altered and become more of a threat to the human population," WHO spokesman Bob Dietz said.

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