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Biotech / Medical : SARS and Avian Flu

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From: Henry Niman9/21/2005 7:18:40 AM
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Bird flu outbreak could become epidemic

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — A bird flu outbreak that has killed at least four people in Indonesia could quickly turn into an epidemic, the health minister warned Wednesday, as agriculture officials announced plans for mass culls of chickens in infected areas.
The government scrambled to calm public fears after a 5-year-old girl hospitalized with symptoms of bird flu died earlier Wednesday, possibly becoming the country's fifth fatality. Results of lab tests are expected later this week.

"At the moment the outbreaks are sporadic, but if things worsen it could become an epidemic," Health Minister Siti Fadila Supari told The Associated Press, noting that five other people suspected of having the virus have been admitted to Jakarta's infectious diseases hospital.

Earlier Supari said the outbreak could already be classified as an epidemic. She later called news organizations to retract her comments, saying there was a "miscommunication."

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has swept through poultry populations in large swaths of Asia since 2003, killing at least 63 people and resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of birds.

Most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds. But the World Health Organization has warned that the virus could mutate into a form that can easily spread among humans, possibly triggering a global pandemic that could kill millions.

Indonesia has reported scores of infections in chicken flocks across the sprawling country, but in the past has said it could not afford to carry out mass culls — something the United Nations suggests is the best way to prevent the virus' spread.

On Wednesday, the government reversed course.

"If we declare one area highly infected, we are going to do a mass slaughter," Minister of Agriculture Anton Apriyantono said.

He said the government would classify "highly infected" areas as farms in which 20% of poultry are infected with H5N1.

On Tuesday, the government issued a 21-day state of high alert against the disease, assigning 44 state-owned hospitals to treat avian influenza patients and make sure all receive free medication.

The extra measures also mean that patients with symptoms of the disease — including high fever, coughing and breathing difficulties — could be forcibly admitted to hospitals.

With coverage of the outbreak dominating local media, chicken vendors have reportedly suffered a sharp drop in sales. Streetside food stalls selling chicken and duck are also hurting.

"My takings have been down a bit," said Suzi, a chicken noodle vendor in central Jakarta who goes by a single name. "I tell people my birds come from the countryside, but it does not help much."

Bird flu has claimed 63 lives in Asia — mostly in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia — and ravaged the region's poultry stocks. Health officials in parts of Russia and Kazakhstan are also monitoring its spread.

Most human cases have been traced to direct contact with infected birds, but officials say the virus could mutate into a form that is transmissible between humans, possibly killing millions of people.
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