by Marwaan Macan-Markar
(IPS) BANGKOK -- While South and Southeast Asia struggles with the mounting death toll after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, a more dangerous killer -- bird flu -- has started to rear its ugly head in some parts of the region.
The lethal avian flu has left eight dead in Vietnam since the beginning of the year. The latest victim of the H5N1 virus, who succumbed this week, was a 42-year-old man from the northern part of the country.
That brings to 27 the number of people who have died in that Southeast Asian country since the region was hit by the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus last year. The past year also saw 12 people die due to the virus in Thailand.
Thailand, in fact, has also confirmed the presence of bird flu in two provinces this month -- but the virus was only confined to poultry. In the eastern province of Rayong, the country's Livestock Department has identified the virus in 20 fighting cocks. A further 50 chickens were detected with the disease in Phitsanulok, a central province.
Hanoi's response to the spread of bird flu suggests the danger that lies ahead. On Tuesday, the Vietnamese government imposed a ban on all imports of poultry to reduce the prospect of further deaths from bird flu in the Communist-ruled country.
So far, nearly a third of the country's 64 provinces have been infected with the virus and the state-run Vietnam News Agency (VNA) reported that over 250,000 birds have been culled to contain the infection.
The specter of the lethal flu becoming more virulent -- triggering a virus that can be transmitted from human to human -- has been a cause for concern given the gene structure of the H5N1 virus and its capacity to mutate rapidly.
'Of the 15 avian influenza virus subtypes, H5N1 is of particular concern for several reasons,' the World Health Organization (WHO) stated over the weekend. 'H5N1 mutates rapidly and has a documented propensity to acquire genes from viruses infecting other animals.'
The Geneva-based health agency also warned that 'laboratory studies have demonstrated that isolates from this virus have a high pathogenicity and can cause severe disease in humans.'
Last January, soon after reports of the first outbreak of bird flu in Southeast Asia, the UN agency raized the alarm that the virus could cause a global pandemic -- killing millions of people -- if the virus mutates into that which could be passed from one human to another.
The fears were exacerbated due to the fact that the human immune system lacks the capacity to fend off a potential new virus. Also, a potent vaccine does not exist to insulate people from the disease.
The last century was witness to such devastating pandemics triggered by influenza, including the pandemic of 1918-19 that led to an estimated 50 million deaths worldwide.
According to officials at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the avian flu virus in Southeast Asia needs closer monitoring in order to further understand the character of the virus and the 'dynamics of the disease.'
'There has been a drift in the virus in January 2005 when compared to what it was in January 2004,' Juan Lubroth, senior officer at the FAO's animal health division, told IPS. 'This is the case throughout the region.'
By 'drift,' he means the changes that take place in the virus over a period of time.
Besides Vietnam and Thailand, other Southeast Asian countries where bird flu had been detected ahead of the current winter season are Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. The first outbreak at the beginning of last year was detected in eight Asian countries, including China. Over 100 million chickens were culled during that initial outbreak to contain the virus.
The Dec. 26 tsunami, which ravaged the coast of 12 countries that share the Indian Ocean, killing over 200,000 and leaving millions displaced, has added another worrying dimension in the quest to contain bird flu.
It stems from the infrastructure used to monitor the spread of avian influenza being destroyed by the tsunami in Indonesia's northern Aceh province, the worst hit area, where over 150,000 people died. What is more, Aceh is within the path of migratory birds identified last year as being a possible carrier of the bird flu virus.
The Rome-based food agency is also concerned about contaminated food entering Aceh's food supply chain in the current efforts to supply the millions who have to depend on aid for their survival.
'The instability and food shortages creates a vacuum and an influx of food and animals is needed,' said Lubroth. 'Under this scenario there is a risk that avian influenza could spread to areas where it had not been reported before.'
'Likewise, government veterinary services in trying to address the needs of a nation may not be in the position to handle prevention measures required to halt the spread of the disease,' he added.
Last year, close to 16 million chickens died or were culled in Indonesia due to bird flu, but none in the devastated region of Aceh.
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