Killer Bird Flu Pandemic Is Preventable, Expert Says

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But that is a major challenge in Thailand, where 50 percent of rural people raise their own chickens.

"Industrial chicken farms are not a problem," Kumnuan said in an interview at his Bangkok office. "The biggest problem is poultry in backyards."

The Thai government pays rural farmers 75 percent of the market value for sick birds that have to be culled. But some villagers may try to hide sick or dead chickens for fear that all their birds will be slaughtered.

Rapid Response

Overseeing a country of 63 million people, Thai officials have nowhere near the resources or staff necessary to monitor every village for bird flu outbreaks. So the government has created a network of some 800,000 volunteers, one for every village in Thailand, who watch for any unusual chicken die-offs.

"We have mobilized village volunteers as watchdogs for the disease in both animals and humans," Kumnuan said. "They are our most important resource. We are totally dependent on them to help us."

Thailand also has about a thousand rapid response teams ready to investigate any suspected human cases of bird flu. Villagers who experience any flu symptoms are advised to seek free medical care immediately.

Awareness of the disease appears to be strong. Late last month, one 50-year-old woman from Bangkok was hospitalized with bird flu. She had developed flu symptoms only three days earlier after visiting her husband at their family farm north of Bangkok, where backyard chickens had just begun to die.

"She knew about H5N1," Kumnuan said. "As soon as she developed the symptoms [of bird flu] she rushed to the hospital and informed her doctors. She is recovering fine."

But the case also underscores the continuing danger that bird flu presents. The incident follows a recurrence of confirmed bird flu outbreaks in poultry in six Thai provinces.

"We have admitted that we can't eradicate this virus within months, but that [eradication] will take several years," Kumnuan said.

"But if we can increase our capacity [to deal with the outbreak] in the very beginning, we can contain it. We can avert the next influenza pandemic by cutting the transmission of the virus from city to city, country to country."

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