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Bird flu toll hits 20 ahead of emergency talks
By (Agencies)
Updated: 2004-02-16 11:50

A teenage boy died of bird flu in Thailand, taking Asia's toll to at least 20 on Sunday, ahead of emergency regional talks on ways to battle the rampaging virus.

Ekaphan Pongkhan, 13, succumbed after more than two weeks in hospital, the latest victim of the virulent H5N1 virus that has now killed six Thais and 14 Vietnamese.

"He died last night of respiratory failure," said Dr Charal Trinwuthipong, chief of the Department of Disease Control.

Ekaphan and the other Thai victims -- four boys aged between six and seven and a 58-year-old woman -- are thought to have caught the virus from direct contact with infected poultry.

Fears persist that the virus could combine with a human flu virus to become a deadly disease that can spread among people. Now there are concerns it may have leapt to exotic animals.

Tests showed a clouded leopard kept in a zoo near Bangkok died of bird flu last month, but it was not yet clear whether the H5N1 virus was responsible, Environment Minister Prapat Panyachatraksa said on Friday.

The animal died on January 27 at Kaokiew Zoo, 40 miles east of Bangkok, three days after suffering from respiratory problems.

Two of three tests conducted on the animal showed positive for avian influenza, an Environment Ministry official said on Sunday. Experts will meet to discuss the test results on Monday.

Zoo officials have told the ministry the leopard, raised alone under a special breeding program, was not exposed to chickens or fed chicken meat.

If confirmed, experts say it could be the first case of avian influenza in such animals.

"If it is true, there have been no reports of these kinds of animals succumbing to bird flu," said Professor Malik Peiris, an avian influenza expert at the University of Hong Kong.


Experts say the virus, which has forced the slaughter of some 80 million birds in the region, mostly in Vietnam and Thailand, is probably spread by migrating birds.

The World Health Organization says it expects more people to be infected by the virus beyond Vietnam and Thailand. There are 22 suspected cases in Thailand, the latest a one-year-old girl added to the list on Saturday.

The United Nations has urged Asian countries not to relax in the war on bird flu because the epidemic is still spreading in Cambodia, China, Indonesia and Laos.

The warning came as senior health and agricultural officials, including U.N. experts from Bangkok, were due to gather in New Delhi for an emergency summit of seven South Asian nations on Monday to discuss joint efforts to fight the epidemic.

The meeting in New Delhi "will deliberate on possible cooperation for tackling the problem of avian influenza," the Indian government said in a statement on Friday.

India has not reported cases of bird flu so far, but Pakistan has been struck by a milder strain of avian flu that cannot cross the species barrier into humans.

There have been outbreaks of a similar strain that cannot make the leap into people have in three U.S. states.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has stressed that poorer Asian countries have neither the resources nor the organization to eradicate the fast spreading H5N1 virus, reflecting the fears of experts that it could flare again.

Thailand has slaughtered 30 million poultry to eradicate the virus and says it is killing the last birds in its last epidemic zone.

With an eye on its embattled $1 billion-a-year export trade in chicken, Thailand is pressing overseas customers like Japan and Europe to test its birds for the virus in an effort to shorten import bans that had devastated the industry.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose government was accused of an initial cover-up of the outbreaks, said he expected the country to be clear of bird flu by the end of the month.

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