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Flu in China as WHO cries war on virus

Bangkok, Jan. 27 (Reuters): The bird flu rampaging through Asia made the dreaded leap into China today and a second Thai boy died of the disease as countries tightened defences against a potential Sars-like epidemic.

The rapid spread of the virus — which has now erupted in 10 Asian countries and killed eight people — prompted the WHO and two other international organisations to ask for money and expertise to fight an all-out war against it. “This is a serious global threat to human health,” said WHO chief Lee Jong-Wook. “We must begin this hard, costly work now.”

China’s Xinhua news agency said the H5N1 strain of the bird flu — which can cross to humans and has already killed eight people in neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand — had killed ducks in the southern province of Guanxi.

The province neighbours Laos, where a senior agriculture ministry staffer said the disease had struck the area around the capital, Vientiane, prompting alarm from health officials who say the country’s poor infrastructure may not be able to cope with containing it. Veterinarians suspected the death of chickens at a farm in the central Chinese province of Hubei and of ducks at a farm in the southern province of Hunan were also caused by bird flu, Xinhua said.

The outbreak in China sparked immediate concern amongst WHO officials. “Clearly it is of concern now that there is an outbreak here in China,” said Dr Julie Hall, a WHO coordinator in Beijing. “It is very urgent that the matter is dealt with quickly.” Culls and quarantine of poultry should be implemented and human contact with animals limited in order to prevent the opportunity for the virus to transmit to humans, she said.

China’s huge population and humans living in close proximity close to poultry, pigs and other livestock in farms across the country’s southern regions alarm epidemiologist, who worry they will be cauldrons for the next big flu epidemic.

Japan, which banned Thai chicken imports before the Bangkok government confirmed it was fighting a major outbreak, promptly shut its doors to chicken from China’s massive farms.

Japan imports about a third of all the chicken it consumes from China. The great fear is that the H5N1 virus might mate with human influenza and unleash a pandemic among people with no immunity to it.

So far, there is no evidence of it passing from human to human and generating a new strain that could spark a pandemic. Humans infected so far are believed to have caught the virus directly from birds. But experts say that no matter how remote the possibility, they fear it could happen and the WHO underlined that by launching its appeal with the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the World Organisation for Animal Health.

Some countries, in addition to banning bird imports from infected countries, are taking other measures to try to keep out the flu, which experts say probably is spread by wild birds.

Japan and Singapore banned imports of birds — from parrots and eagles to ostrich and exotic bird meats — shipped from countries reporting outbreaks.

Australia tightened surveillance at sea, restricted public access to poultry farms and deployed sniffer dogs and X-ray machines at airports to stop people from bringing in potentially tainted gourmet food and souvenirs.

Singapore is shielding its bird farms with netting, doubling farm inspections to twice a day and stepping up checks on fowl shipments from Malaysia.

In Thailand, the government expanded its bird flu crisis zone to 13 of its 76 provinces from 10 and is mounting a political defence after admitting it remained silent about its suspicions that bird flu arrived for several weeks. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said he expected a meeting of health and farm officials in Bangkok tomorrow to help Thailand regain international confidence.

“Tomorrow, everything will be transparent and we hope to regain confidence from the meeting,” he said after the EU, a major customer of a Thai chicken industry which earns more than $1 billion a year in exports, said it did not trust his government.

EU spokeswoman Beate Gminder said the 15-member bloc would demand independent verification of Thai measures to wipe out the disease before it considered lifting its ban on imports of Thai chicken.

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