Originally created 01/24/04

Bird flu as infection spreads through Asia



BANGKOK, Thailand -- A man suspected of having bird flu died Friday and two boys have been infected, the Thai government said, while Cambodia became the sixth Asian nation with a confirmed outbreak of the disease.

Cases of avian influenza have been confirmed in Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. If the Thai man is confirmed to have died from bird flu, it would be the first known fatality from the disease in Thailand. The virus has already killed five people in Vietnam.

The increase in the number of affected countries "confirms FAO's concern that the spread of bird flu is taking on a large-scale regional dimension," said He Changchui, the U.N. agency's Asia-Pacific chief.

Thai officials, who had denied for several days that the virus was present in the country, said Friday that two hospitalized boys were confirmed as having bird flu, and three others - including the man who has now died - were suspected of having the disease.

The health ministry said the initial diagnosis showed the dead man suffered from a bacterial infection, but it was awaiting further test results.

Thailand's agriculture minister also said chickens in one province tested positive for the disease. Until now, Thailand had been accused of covering up the outbreak.

A defensive Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters: "We didn't have scientific proof" of the disease before Friday. "I didn't deny anything," he said. "We were waiting for the tests. ... I know what I'm doing."

The World Health Organization said it would send two influenza experts to Thailand to help cope with the outbreak.

The 15-nation European Union, Japan, the Philippines and other nations have banned imports of chicken from Thailand, which is among the world's top five poultry exporters.

Officials in Bangkok said tests showed the disease was present in Thailand's poultry population and was passed to the boys, ages 6 and 7, and possibly two other people now under surveillance.

Together with the re-emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, Asia is on a region-wide health alert.

A WHO team and six scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are in Hanoi, hoping to track down exactly how the H5N1 virus has jumped from poultry to people.

Scientists believe people get the disease through contact with sick birds. So far, there has been no evidence of person-to-person transmission.

WHO officials have expressed concern that the avian virus could mutate to allow human transmission, which could make the disease a bigger health crisis than SARS. That disease, also a virus, killed nearly 800 people last year.

Farmers in Thailand had said for more than a week that millions of chickens were dying of bird flu and that the government was covering it up to protect poultry exports. Until Friday, officials said the chickens were suffering from fowl cholera - which they added posed no danger to people.

Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphun said the two infected boys lived near poultry farms where chickens had died, and allegedly touched the carcasses of dead birds.

Tests on a third person suspected of being infected with the virus in central Nakhon Sawan province had turned out negative, she said.

Officials collected and tested samples from more than 100,000 chickens nationwide.

The U.N. agriculture agency said it received news Friday that tests carried out by a laboratory in France at the request of the Cambodian government confirmed that samples of dead poultry contained bird flu.

A spokesman said Cambodia's government has asked the agency for technical details on how they should carry out programs to contain the disease. No cases of bird flu have been reported among humans in Cambodia.