01/22/2004, 00.00
VIETNAM – THAILAND
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Bird flu destroys economy

Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) - World Health Organization (WHO) spokesman Bob Dietz said there might be a mutation of the flu virus which is ravaging chickens in Asia (H5N1). This can lead not only to the virus's transmission from animal to man, as has been verified up until now, but also from man to man.   

Experts are still not capable of predicting how long the virus takes to evolve nor have they found evidence of human to human infections or an onset of the disease for having eaten poultry. Contact with chickens is the most common vehicle for the disease's transmission, even if some health officials do not consider it dangerous to eat chicken if cooked properly. Meanwhile, work is underway to find a vaccine capable of fighting the avian flu, against which the human immune system is not able to fight.  

Unlike in South Korea and Japan, the virus was transmitted to man for the first time in Vietnam, where before infection was limited to chickens. The situation in the country continues to be critical, not only from a health perspective, but also in terms of the economy. In a low-income nation resources are insufficient to cope with an emergency which, according to public authorities, will take months to overcome. Tourism, which constitutes an important source of the country's revenue, is preparing to undergo a new standstill, just after recovering from the Sars crisis. Even the poultry industry risks collapsing.     

Problems linked to the spreading of the virus not only involve the country at "high levels". The culling of chickens is creating enormous hardships on people, especially on families and small farmers. According to official statistics, there are 254 million chickens and ducks in Vietnam. 80% of Vietnam's 10 million families have about 20 chickens each and many raise ducks, using their dung as fertilizer for their own rice fields. Of the country's 2300 farmers each has at least 2000 chickens. For these reasons, many Vietnamese refused to cull chickens as government authorities had bid them to do, causing great concern within the FAO. In terms of health, the risk of spreading the virus is quite high. Most Vietnamese have close contact with chickens every day.    

The chicken flu has caused some Vietnamese to change their traditional uses and customs during the Lunar New Year. Many have refused to make offerings of chickens to their ancestors and have decided to prepare fish dishes. In the village of Minh Chay, 60 kms from Hanoi, health officials from the district of Ba Vi went to the home of a young girl who died of the virus last week in order to inspect and disinfect the family's chicken coop and to stop the spreading of the virus. The girl's father said that he doesn't know how his daughter contracted the virus. He admitted refusing to sell and, above all, kill his 50 chickens, even if many were sick before the girl was infected. A shopkeeper from the same village said that many farmers grind the meat of chickens showing signs of infection and prepare traditional pastries with it sold at the market.    

All this requires widespread prevention, control and intervention measures not only on large farms and central markets, but also at the local level. There are many difficulties in this sense, due to the weak, inefficient and poorly structured health care and veterinary systems, which are not able to reach the most marginal regions of the country.    

Vietnam authorities are trying to avoid negative reactions on the part of the populace by visiting the most hit areas and promising compensation of expenses for those who have had their chickens culled. The director of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development's veterinary department, Nguyen Van Thong, said that from the beginning of January before the order to cull chickens farmers from the most devastated provinces (particularly Long An and Tien Giang in the southwest) sold 900,000 live chickens. It is still not clear if these chickens were culled or not.  

In Thailand, where the government denied the news regarding the presence of the H5N1 virus, the first case of infection was confirmed of a child from the province of Suphan Buri, northwest of Bangkok. The Minister of Health, Sudarat Keyuraphun, assured that all necessary measures are being taken to fight the virus's spreading throughout the country. The Minister of Agriculture, Newin Chidchob, said that 6 million chickens in the provinces of Nakorn Sawan and Chachersao were killed. Yet according to some officials many are affected by a less serious strain of the virus and by respiratory diseases. Thai authorities have prepared for the destroying of chickens for fear of repercussions in exporting the birds. According to the government, in fact, some farmers might be giving illegal antibiotics to chickens, which is considered harmful abroad.   (MR)
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