Fri, Dec 17, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Global flu epidemic only a matter of time

The poultry farms of Southeast Asia are a breeding ground for H5N1, the avian influenza virus, which will soon contaminate the planet

By Robin McKie, Jo Revill, John Aglionby and Jonathan Watts  /  THE OBSERVER , London, Bangkok and Beijing


Wanphen Sripirom has struggled for years to scrape a living as a subsistence farmer in Phichit Province, north of Bangkok. Chickens have provided her with a lifeline that has been crucial for survival.

But last week Wanphen had to face a heart-breaking prospect: the slaughter of her brood.

"They're going to be killed tonight," she said.

It was a bitter blow, although the farmer is not alone in the privations she faces. Thousands of others across Asia have already had their livelihoods devastated because their poultry has become infected by H5N1, the bird flu virus.

Tens of thousands of ducks and chickens have been infected and tens of millions have been culled this year in a bid to stop the disease spreading. Economists believe this price tag for China alone has been ?31 billion (US$60.2 billion). The figure for the whole of Southeast Asia is double that.

Health officials are unrepentant, however, for they are desperate to stop the disease spreading -- not just to other poultry but to humans. The farms of Southeast Asia, where humans and animals live beside each other in tiny yards and huts, have become a vast reservoir for the H5N1 virus, and that chills not just local officials but the world's health authorities.

The planet, they believe, is poised on the brink of a new flu pandemic whose source will be the infected farm birds of Thailand, Vietnam and China.

Already 44 confirmed human cases of H5N1 infection have been documented in Thailand and Vietnam (the only countries to report human cases). Of these, 32 have died, a fatality rate of 73 percent. No wonder the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international medical groups have become fixated about Southeast Asian agriculture.

"No man is an island," said John Oxford, professor of virology at Queen Mary Westfield School of Medicine, Lon-don. "It doesn't matter where it starts -- it will be on our doorstep within 12 hours."

"You can't argue that it isn't our problem," he said.

The struggle for survival of Wanphen Sripirom, and the thousands of other Southeast Asian subsistence farmers, is a matter of direct consequence for us all, in other words.

"I noticed the symptoms of the virus in one of my birds one morning and by nightfall 50 had died," Wanphen said. "The following day another 30 died, and then another 30 the following day.

"Their bodies began shaking; it was as if they were suffocating and thick saliva starting coming out of their mouths. We tried to give the hens herbs to make them better, but it made no difference," she said.

`The faces then went dark green and black, and then they died," she said.

Wanphen and her husband, Ban Noensai, were relatively lucky, however. They are still alive. The case of Pranee Thong-chan, in the north province of Kamphaengphet, presents a far more worrying example for health authorities.

Pranee had no contact with poultry but had spent several days looking after her dying daughter Sakuntala. The 11-year-old had become ill after playing with infected hens. Doctors believe she was a bird flu victim, although Sakuntala was cremated before final tests could be carried out.

Then Pranee became ill and was taken to hospital, where she died several days later. Post-mortem tests showed she carried the H5N1 virus. Given Pranee's history and given the facts of her daughter's death, doctors conclude she was one of the first recorded victims of the human-to-human transmission of the H5N1 virus.

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