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Bird flu: Global response sought

Indonesian workers dispose of infected chickens.
Indonesian workers dispose of infected chickens.

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Nations hit by bird flu
•S. Korea
•Taiwan (different strain)

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BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) -- World health experts have called for a SARS-like response to a bird flu pandemic as two more Asian nations reported outbreaks of the disease.

Laos and China are the latest to have reported instances of the rapidly spreading virus that has now killed at least eight people and forced the slaughter of tens of millions of chickens.

Thailand confirmed its second fatality from bird flu, local television reported. A 6-year-old boy confirmed to be infected with the virus in northern Sukhothai province died Tuesday at a hospital in Phitsanulok province.

The boy had been hospitalized since mid-January, the iTV television station reported.

In Europe, three global agencies called for international economic and technical help -- similar to the worldwide response to SARS -- to combat the spread of the disease.

"With SARS, we learned that only by working together can we control emerging global public health threats," said Dr. Lee Jong-wook, director-general of the World Health Organization in Geneva.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome and the Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in Paris joined WHO in the call for a global response.

Unlike SARS, Lee said, diagnostic tests for bird flu already exist, as do effective, although costly, antivirals for humans.

"This is a serious global threat to human health," he said. "We must begin this hard, costly work now."

The victims have all been people who handled infected birds. There has been no evidence of human-to-human transmission. The disease cannot be passed by eating cooked birds, experts say.

In addition to the human health threat, the flu would be an economic disaster for the poultry industry and poultry farmers who must now kill infected and exposed birds, said Dr. Jacques Diouf, director-general of the FAO.

Those people, he said, will "require support to compensate for such losses."

"This will represent a huge cost, especially to struggling economies and small farmers," he said. "The international community has a stake in the success of these efforts and poorer nations will need help."

Laotian health and agriculture officials said Tuesday the infection has been detected in chickens in and around the capital of Vientiane but not in humans.

Local authorities in China reported detecting the disease on private farms in the Guangxi and Hubei provinces, the official Xinhua News Agency said, adding that labs in Beijing were still testing the dead birds.

Ducks that died on January 23 in Guangxi province were examined by local veterinarians, and authorities concluded they died of bird flu, the agency reported. Authorities sealed the farm and slaughtered 14,000 fowl within a 3 kilometer radius of the farm.

On Monday, authorities in Hubei province found cases on private poultry farms and slaughtered and disinfected the farms according to "proper" methods, the agency said.

The Chinese government reported these cases to WHO and FAO, but neither agency has confirmed them.

The flu also has been discovered in Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. A different strain of bird flu has been detected in Taiwan.

Humans have been infected only in Vietnam and Thailand so far, although officials in Cambodia said Monday that two boys who played with chickens are suspected of having the virus.

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

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

WHO said a vaccine for bird flu is at least six months away because the disease keeps mutating. The agency also is highly concerned because the virus appears resistant to cheaper antiviral drugs used to treat regular influenza.

"This is now spreading too quickly for anybody to ignore it," WHO spokesman Peter Cordingley said.

A conference starting Wednesday in Bangkok, Thailand, will try to come up with an coordinated global approach to the bird flu threat.

Attending the meeting will be the 10 ASEAN countries -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- as well as China, South Korea and Hong Kong.

"We are looking to this conference for a return, if you like, to the spirit of SARS," Cordingley told CNN.

The latest outbreak of a strain of H5N1 avian influenza has been marred by accusations of cover-ups by government officials in Thailand and Indonesia.

Thai officials only confirmed the presence of the flu on Friday after days of denying accusations from farmers and opposition legislators that the nation had been hit by the disease.

Indonesia also has been under pressure to explain its actions after researchers there said signs of the flu had been in the republic since September. Indonesia revealed it had an outbreak on its hands on Sunday.

Singapore, meanwhile, has banned the public from visiting any poultry farms or slaughterhouses and stepped up monitoring of Malaysian imports to keep the bird flu out of the island state.

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