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Mass bird cull needed, says WHO

A vaccine is at least six months away, the WHO says.
A vaccine is at least six months away, the WHO says.

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Officials act quickly in China, citing lessons learned from the SARS outbreak a year ago.
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Health experts meet in Bangkok for talks on the bird flu.
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BANGKOK, Thailand (CNN) -- A mass slaughter of infected chickens and ducks is the only way of controlling the deadly bird flu sweeping across Asia, the World Health Organization has warned, as the human toll from the outbreak rises.

At least 10 people have now died -- two in Thailand and eight in Vietnam -- from the virus, with fears growing the disease could become a pandemic worse than the SARS outbreak that claimed about 800 lives last year.

Hong Kong -- the site of a bird flu outbreak in 1997 that saw the culling of the territory's entire poultry stocks and the death of six people -- is on alert following a report Thursday that a Hong Kong woman recently returned from Vietnam is showing signs of the disease.

Ten Asian nations, including China, have now been hit by the disease. Millions of chickens and ducks have either died from the flu or have been slaughtered under government direction.

At a crisis meeting in Bangkok Wednesday, the WHO said mass culling was the key to controlling the outbreak, because a vaccine is at least six months away.

The WHO says it is working with drug companies on a preventive vaccine and hopes to have a prototype of the virus soon that could serve as the basis for a vaccine.

Klaus Stohr, head of the WHO's global influenza program, said in Geneva Wednesday that it was taking these precautions in case there was "significant human to human transmission", Reuters reports.

While there is no evidence yet of human-to-human transmission, the Asian victims have all been people who handled infected birds, and experts have advised people to avoid going to poultry farms and food markets with live animals.

At the Bangkok meeting Wednesday, Asian health ministers vowed to work together but Indonesia said it did not intend to order its farmers to kill their fowl, The Associated Press reports.

Additionally, the mass culling in Thailand, Vietnam and China has raised fresh fears workers involved are not taking enough precautions, with television images showing many without protective clothing.

Along with these three nations, the flu also has been discovered in Laos, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. A different strain of bird flu has been detected in Taiwan.

Indonesia has not officially reported bird flu cases to the WHO, but announced Sunday it was combating the virus.

The head of the country's agricultural quarantine agency, Budi Tri Akoso, said Wednesday slaughtering infected birds would be left to the discretion of farmers. The Indonesian government is considering a vaccination campaign for poultry.

Fears in China

Along with the WHO, two other international agencies -- the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health -- say a mass cull is the best approach.

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control has activated its emergency operations center in a bid to assist a global effort to stop the disease.

The feathers are removed from chickens infected with bird flu, before they are sold in Indonesia.  Authorities are still allowing the sale of infected birds.
The feathers are removed from chickens infected with bird flu, before they are sold in Indonesia. Authorities are still allowing the sale of infected birds.

China detected the disease on farms in Guangxi and Hubei provinces, according to Stohr, and is investigating suspected cases in two other regions.

A duck that died on January 23 was determined to have the disease, a finding Stohr called "alarming" as ducks usually harbor the disease but don't die from it.

Authorities in China have sealed the farm, slaughtered 14,000 poultry animals within a 3-kilometer radius of the farm, and barred movement of animals within a 5-kilometer radius, Stohr said.

As bird flu spreads around Asia, experts worry the virus is moving so fast it could mutate enough to allow humans to pass it on to each other.

If this happens, it could become a bigger health crisis than SARS, they have warned.

The WHO has said the virus needs to be taken out of the bird population so it doesn't jump to humans and to migratory birds, which could spread it further.

Humans have been infected only in Vietnam and Thailand, although officials in Cambodia said Monday two boys who played with chickens are suspected of having the virus.

On Wednesday, the European Union halted imports of exotic pet birds from Asia, following its ban last week of poultry meat from major producer Thailand.

The EU imports about 100,000 pet birds a year from Pakistan, China and Indonesia. They are mainly parrots and budgerigars.

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