A bird flu outbreak that has killed at least four people in Indonesia could quickly turn into an epidemic, the health minister warned yesterday, as agriculture officials announced plans for mass culls of chickens in infected areas.
The government scrambled to calm public fears after a five-year-old girl hospitalized with symptoms of bird flu died earlier yesterday, possibly becoming the country's fifth human 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 said, 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 UN suggests is the best way to prevent the virus' spread.
Yesterday, the government reversed course.
"If we declare one area highly infected, we are going to do a mass slaughter," Minister of Agriculture Anton Apriyantono told reporters.
He said the government would classify "highly infected" areas as farms in which 20 percent of poultry are infected with H5N1.