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Thailand studies bird flu deaths in cows
Updated: 2004-02-20 08:00

Thailand ordered an investigation Thursday into whether 196 cows died of bird flu as the virus was reportedly discovered in a house cat.

If confirmed, the cat would be first domesticated mammal struck by the deadly strain of avian flu that has swept across Asia, killing 22 people and ravaging poultry stocks.

A clouded leopard in a zoo near Bangkok last month became the first non-human mammal to die of bird flu, raising concerns about the virus jumping species.

The virus was discovered in the cat by researchers at the Animal Hospital of Kasetsart University in Bangkok, the Krungthep Thurakij daily newspaper said on its Web site, quoting the hospital's director, Thanirat Santiwat.

A World Health Organization adviser and viral expert, Prasert Thongcharoen, said he could not confirm the case. "If it's true, it's very dangerous because pets are very close to humans," he said. "Because this disease is new to the world, nobody knows how far it can go."

The hospital said the cat was brought in by its owner from Nakhon Pathom province near Bangkok, who reported that it had eaten dead chickens and become sick. The director was not immediately available for comment and calls to his office and home went unanswered.

Seven pet chickens in southern Japan are infected with the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain, the same one infecting the rest of Asia, agriculture officials announced Thursday for the first time after a government lab test. Earlier tests had only identified the virus as an H5 strain.

The World Health Organization listed Japan among the countries affected by the avian flu after an outbreak last month killed thousands of egg laying chickens in the country's southwest.

Bird flu has killed seven people in Thailand and is known to have sickened two other people, who have recovered. Fifteen people have also died from the disease in Vietnam.

Also affected by the H5N1 strain are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and South Korea. Pakistan and China's Taiwan are reporting a milder strain of the virus.

The Thai cattle died in early February near the mountains of northeastern Kalasin province, 270 miles northeast of Bangkok, Yukol Limlamthong, director general of the Livestock Department, told reporters. "So far, we only know that the cattle were local breeds and were roaming freely in the village," he said.

However, Deputy Agriculture Minister Newin Chidchob said he did not believe the animals were killed by the bird flu virus sweeping Asia.

"The cattle started dying Feb. 4 and it is normal during this time of year," he said. "Every year, those animals come down from the hills to escape the cold. Some fall down and die and others can't tolerate the cool weather."

The cattle's manure will be tested for the virus, because the animals have already been eaten by villagers or sent to slaughterhouses, said the chief veterinarian at the Kalasin provincial livestock office, Prayat Leychiangsean.

The director of the Disease Control Division of the Livestock Department, Dr. Nirundorn Auangtrakulsuk, said the cattle likely died from foot-and-mouth disease, which has been known to hit the animals in Thailand, or a disease called hemorrhagic septicemia, a blood infection which comes with symptoms similar to pneumonia.

Commenting on the suspected jump of the disease to cattle, Dr. Samuel Jutzi, director of Animal Production and Health Division at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization headquarters in Rome, told The Associated Press that transmission of the virus from species to species "is not so easy."

Still, he said he would encourage Thai authorities to check symptoms and make samples available for independent testing.

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