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Warnings, bans as bird flu spreads

A worker sprays chemicals on a bag containing chickens in a cleanup in Thailand.
A worker sprays chemicals on a bag containing chickens in a cleanup in Thailand.

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BANGKOK, Thailand -- At least two Thai children have been infected with bird flu, and world health officials warn the deadly virus could spark an epidemic worse than SARS.

The European Union suspended poultry imports from Thailand Friday, while an outbreak among poultry in Cambodia was also confirmed -- bringing to at least five the number of Asian countries hit by the disease.

In Bangkok, Thailand's health minister confirmed two children have bird flu, which has killed five Vietnamese -- including a 5-year-old girl -- in the past two weeks.

The infected Thai children -- boys ages 6 and 7 from different provinces west of Bangkok -- lived near poultry farms where chickens had died and allegedly touched the carcasses of dead birds, Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphun told reporters Friday.

One of the boys is in critical condition, apparently on life support, in a Bangkok hospital, Thai officials said. The other is in stable condition.

More people are feared to be suffering from bird flu, including the 7-year-old's twin brother, who also has been hospitalized.

The government warned anyone suffering from fever and bronchitis after being around poultry to seek urgent medical treatment.

"Those who have contacted chicken and have high fever and bronchitis should report themselves to doctors immediately," Reuters quoted Keyuraphun as saying.

The World Health Organization said in a statement that the near-simultaneous outbreaks in Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia were "historically unprecedented" and warned the virus could mutate into a form deadlier to humans.

If the disease mutated enough to allow human-to-human transmission, health experts warn that the virus could become a bigger health crisis than SARS. That disease, also a virus, killed nearly 800 people worldwide last year.

"The more widespread it becomes, the greater the possibility that the (bird flu) virus could become altered and become more of a threat to the human population," WHO spokesman Bob Dietz said.

Scientists believe people get the disease through contact with sick birds. So far, there has been no evidence of person-to-person transmission.

As well as a health scare, the confirmation of bird flu spells big economic trouble for Thailand, which is among the world's top five poultry exporters.

Poultry stocks plunged, and the 15-nation European Union said it was joining Japan in banning imports of Thai poultry. The EU and Japan are Thailand's largest chicken markets.

More than a million chickens in farms near Bangkok are to be killed in the next 36 hours, with officials placing chickens in plastic bags and burying them alive.

The containment strategy could be expanded across largely rural Thailand, officials said.

Until Friday, the Thai government had claimed the disease that killed thousands of chickens across the country in recent days was poultry cholera.

Bird flu has already ravaged the stocks of chickens and ducks in Vietnam, South Korea and Japan.

On Friday, a bird flu outbreak was confirmed in Cambodia, a spokesman for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization told The Associated Press.

Tests carried out by a French laboratory confirmed that samples of dead poultry contained bird flu, the AP reported.

Fears over Asia's bird flu outbreak grew when worst-hit Vietnam admitted Wednesday that nearly 900,000 chickens possibly exposed to the deadly virus had been sold to the public, according to The Associated Press.

A WHO team and six scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are in Hanoi hoping to track down exactly how the virus jumped from poultry to people.

In Hong Kong, a dead falcon tested positive for bird flu on Wednesday, prompting officials to step up surveillance there.

In 1997, the deadly virus crossed over from chickens to humans in Hong Kong, killing six people.

Hong Kong authorities said Friday they were suspending applications for importing live birds or poultry meat from Thailand until the situation is clarified.

Australian officials said they were watching the situation in Asia and would increase border vigilance, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

-- CNN's Tom Mintier contributed to this report

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