- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

HANOI — Asia’s deadly bird flu that has jumped to humans in Vietnam and Thailand is spreading, U.N. and other officials said yesterday, a warning grimly underlined by confirmation of a sixth death from the disease.

Experts fear the avian virus could set off an epidemic worse than SARS, another disease that crossed from animals to humans. It killed 800 people and frightened the world last year.

“There’s no denying the disease is spreading,” said Anton Rychener, Vietnam representative for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

The World Health Organization said a 13-year-old Vietnamese boy had died Thursday from the H5N1 strain of avian flu, and that an 8-year-old girl had tested positive for the virus.

She was critically ill in Ho Chi Minh City. The two are the first confirmed cases of bird flu in southern Vietnam since four children and one adult died in the country’s north.

A chicken butcher in Thailand, one of six Thais being tested for the disease, was believed to have died of pneumonia Friday, but more tests were being done, officials said.

The WHO has said the near-simultaneous bird flu outbreaks in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and now Thailand and Cambodia were “historically unprecedented.”

Thailand will host a meeting Wednesday of senior health and agriculture officials from Asian countries and the European Union as well as from international agencies fighting the outbreak.

The Bangkok government denied yesterday it had tried to cover up an outbreak of bird flu, saying it had had suspicions for weeks but had only known for certain when tests confirmed the disease.

After weeks of declaring the country free of bird flu, the government confirmed Friday that two boys, ages 6 and 7, had contracted the highly infectious virus.

Critics have accused the Thai government of trying to hide the outbreak by blaming the deaths of tens of thousands of chickens since November on poultry cholera.

The outbreak threatens to devastate the Thai chicken industry, the world’s fourth largest, with $1.5 billion in annual exports and employing hundreds of thousands of people.

The European Union, the No. 2 buyer of Thai chicken, and Japan, Thailand’s biggest customer, have banned imports of Thai chicken. So too have Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Bangladesh and South Korea.

Thailand has culled more than 7 million chickens in 24 of 76 provinces, with officials now focusing their efforts on the worst-hit province, Suphan Buri, northwest of Bangkok.

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