Thu, Mar 16, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Myanmar keeps lid on bird flu outbreak

NEWS BLACKOUT Farmers near Mandalay have not received any details about bird flu or which farms have been affected; they just know markets have banned poultry sales


Myanmar's military rulers yesterday maintained a news blackout about the country's first outbreak of bird flu, leaving farmers uncertain how to prevent the virus.

"I still don't know what the symptoms of bird flu are, so how can I know if my chickens will die of bird flu?" asked 55-year-old farmer named Shi.

Shi said neither agricultural nor health officials had given her any details of bird flu or instructions on what to do with her 750 chickens in a farm outside Mandalay, some 700km north of Yangon, where the outbreak was detected.

She did not even know which farms had suffered the outbreak, or if hers was located nearby.

"I have no idea yet if the authorities will kill my chickens," she said. "If many chickens died or many chickens were sick, I would inform the health department, but the problem is I don't know what the symptoms of bird flu are."

On Monday, Myanmar informed the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that officials had detected bird flu in poultry.

But state-run media and tightly controlled private publications have kept quiet about the outbreak of bird flu, which has killed about 100 people in seven countries since 2003.

The only information about the disease has come from short-wave radio or from posters placed by health authorities in Mandalay's markets, where poultry vendors are no longer allowed.

The H5N1 strain can spread from infected birds to people in close proximity, and causes flu-like symptoms in humans.

Tin Maung Than, a US-based expert on Myanmar, said the media blackout came as no surprise given the notoriously secretive nature of the junta, which has ruled the country since 1962.

"In cases like bird flu, the government is very cautious. If they announce bird flu, they assume that there will be a widespread fear in the public. They are afraid of any sort of instability," he said.

"The government is scared of any panic. The government is more concerned about keeping stability than the public health," he said.

Since the outbreak, Myanmar has already slaughtered 780 birds and quarantined at least four farms and is intensely searching for any other signs of bird flu, according to the FAO.

Meanwhile, authorities in India's western Maharashtra state began culling more than 70,000 chickens in Jalgaon district yesterday to contain a fresh outbreak of bird flu, news reports said.

The site of the fresh cases is about 140km east of Nandurbar district in Maharashtra where the first cases in the country were reported last month.

About 200 villages are under strict surveillance and more than 85,000 people are being kept under observation, PTI news agency and NDTV news channel reported quoting district officials.

No human case of bird flu has been reported in India so far.

Announcing the fresh outbreak, a federal health official said yesterday four samples from one commercial poultry farm in Jalgaon district had tested positive for the H5 virus and further tests were being carried to confirm the findings.

The police have sealed off the 3km infected zone and additional forces have been deployed in the infected villages.

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