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Thai boy dies as bird flu hits Indonesia
( 2004-01-26 11:59) (Agencies)

Hundreds of soldiers wearing safety masks, rubber gloves and protective caps fanned out across a central Thai province Sunday on a mission to bury chickens believed to be carrying bird flu.

A six-year-old Thai boy died of the disease late Sunday, becoming the country's first confirmed human fatality, as the World Health Organization warned the virus could be resistant to basic human influenza drugs.

Thai farm workers collect chickens to be destroyed. Asia's bird flu crisis deepened as Indonesia said 'millions' of its chickens had died from the illness, making it the seventh nation to confirm the deadly disease. [AFP]
Indonesia, meanwhile, became the sixth country in Asia to confirm an outbreak in chickens.

Donning rubber gloves and boots, pink, blue and purple shower caps, along with safety masks, Thai troops and about 60 prisoners were dispatched in Thailand's hard-hit Suphanburi province. They were to help bury poultry that had been killed or had died from the disease, said Maj. Detchana Detsonti.

Thailand has already exterminated some 9 million chickens.

As a bus of shower-capped soldiers headed out to a farm, some joked about their assignment.

"When I joined, I didn't think I would do anything like this," one said.

The Public Health Ministry said it was concerned that farms were not burying infected birds quickly enough to control the disease.

"I'm very concerned about the way farmers dispose of their dead chickens, especially when they toss their chickens into open rivers," said Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan.

In Bangkok, a 6-year-old boy from central Kanchanaburi province died of the disease late Sunday at Siriraj Hospital, the ministry said.

The boy's health "deteriorated very rapidly," Sudarat said.

"This is typical of bird flu. It is very hard to get infected by this disease, but once you have it you tend to go down very fast," she said.

Doctors in Thailand have said an earlier death was suspected to have been from bird flu, but that has not yet been confirmed. A 7-year-old boy is also seriously ill in Thailand, and an 8-year-old girl was sick in Viet Nam.

A total of seven deaths from bird flu ! six of them in Viet Nam ! have been confirmed by health authorities.

On Sunday, Indonesian officials admitted that millions of chickens were likely infected in that country. The virus has not yet crossed over to humans, said Sofjan Sudardjat, a senior agriculture official.

Indonesian officials had earlier denied an outbreak, but the Indonesian Veterinarians Association said several independent investigations had revealed that bird flu had already killed millions of chickens over the past several months.

Asia is on a region-wide health alert, with governments slaughtering millions of chickens to contain outbreaks in Thailand, Viet Nam, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

Scientists believe people get the disease through contact with sick birds, raising concerns it might mutate and link with regular influenza to create a form that could be transmitted from person to person, fostering the next human flu pandemic.

Concerns are particularly high because the bird flu virus caught by humans appears resistant to amantadine and rimantadine, the 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."

So far, there has been no evidence of person-to-person transmission. Farms across Asia have been devastated but Viet Nam and Thailand are the only countries this year where humans have caught the avian flu.

According to WHO, the virus is resistant to key anti-influenza drugs, and an effective vaccine is probably more than six months away.

But "that's too late for the influenza season in Asia," said Peter Cordingley, a regional spokesman for WHO.

The Jakarta Post reported Monday that Indonesian officials may have covered up the outbreak there at the behest of politically connected businessmen who feared it would harm their interests.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, faced with similar accusations that he covered up the outbreak, said his government had suspected that bird flu had struck his nation a "couple of weeks" ago. But he said he didn't tell the public because he feared mass panic.

The outbreak has devastated Thailand's chicken export industry ! the world's fourth largest. Thailand shipped about 500,000 tons of chicken worth $1.3 billion in 2003.

Many countries have imposed bans on poultry products from Thailand, and the prime minister said Saturday that overall exports could drop by as much as 0.4 percentage points and the gross domestic product could slip by as much as 0.1 percentage points as a result.

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