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Bird Flu Infects Indonesia's Papua Province as Virus Moves East

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  • Bird Flu Infects Indonesia's Papua Province as Virus Moves East

    Bird Flu Infects Indonesia's Papua Province as Virus Moves East

    May 16 (Bloomberg) -- Bird flu was found in fowl in Indonesia's easternmost province of Papua, evidence the lethal virus is moving closer to the South Pacific and Australia.

    The H5N1 strain of avian influenza earlier this month reached the province that borders Papua New Guinea, Laurence Gleeson, an official with the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, told reporters yesterday in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. The H5N1 virus has reappeared in Laos and may spread to Bangladesh, Gleeson said.

    "As long as there is a lot of bird flu in Indonesia, then clearly it does remain somewhat of a source of disease for other countries in the area," said Gleeson, the Bangkok-based regional manager of the FAO's Emergency Centre for Transboundary Animal Diseases. "If it arrives in Papua New Guinea then there are other nations in the South Pacific which would also be at risk."

    Infected poultry increase the risk of human infection and create opportunities for the virus to mutate into a pandemic form that may kill millions of people. Fatalities from H5N1 this year have almost matched 2005 levels as the virus spread to more than 30 countries on three continents.

    The H5N1 virus has killed at least 115 of 208 people known to have been infected since late 2003, the World Health Organization said on May 12. It's infected at least 64 people this year, killing 39 of them.

    Representatives from the FAO, the WHO and Asia-Pacific governments are meeting this week in Jakarta to discuss food security, poverty and preparing for disasters, such as a possible flu pandemic.

    Pandemic Threat

    A pandemic occurs when a new A-type influenza virus emerges and starts spreading as easily as seasonal flu, through coughing and sneezing, according to the Geneva-based WHO. Humans have no natural immunity to H5N1, making it likely that people who contract any pandemic flu based on that strain will become more seriously ill than when infected by seasonal flu.

    H5N1 "has exposed human vulnerability in this age of great scientific advances," Kennedy Shortridge, an emeritus professor of microbiology at the University of Hong Kong, said in an interview earlier this month. "Here we have a little simple flu virus that can hold us to ransom. It's probing our defenses."

    Almost all human H5N1 cases have been linked to close contact with sick or dead birds, such as children playing with them or adults butchering them, according to the WHO. Cooking meat and eggs properly kills the virus.

    "This virus has the potential to cause really explosive epidemics because it's very infectious for poultry and also it's relatively environmentally resistant," Gleeson said. "It can stick around for a number of days in a market environment, for instance. It has the potential for rapid expansion."

    Case in Laos

    The virus infected a duck farm near the Laotian capital, Vientiane, remerging in late April, Gleeson said. Previous outbreaks occurred in 2003.

    Bangladesh "is probably under considerable threat because it has a large population of ducks, lots of water and they're on a migratory pathway" for wild birds, Gleeson told the Jakarta conference yesterday.

    The disease is probably endemic in many parts of Asia where domestic poultry are raised by smallholder farmers often in backyards, he said. In Indonesia, the world's fourth-most-populous nation, outbreaks have occurred in poultry in at least 26 of the country's 33 provinces

    "The endemic circulation of the virus in backyard chickens is going to be a real challenge in Indonesia," Gleeson told reporters. Some urban dwellers may need to be deterred from keeping poultry as a hobby, he said. "They don't need to have 20 chickens in the backyard."

    Maldives, Sri Lanka

    Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, which haven't reported any H5N1 outbreaks in poultry, have a lower risk of infection, Gleeson said. As too does Australia, he said.

    Gleeson blamed some of the virus's spread on cock fighting. Some raging roosters are taken on national and international tours as part of a sport that's popular in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.

    "Fighting cocks could well be a common risk factor for the spread" of H5N1, Gleeson said. "In some countries, fight cock owners are very reluctant to vaccinate their birds. They feel that this will have some deleterious effect on their athletic performance."

    To contact the reporter on this story:
    Jason Gale in Singapore at j.gale _at_
    Last Updated: May 15, 2006 19:01 EDT
    ...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. - Sherlock Holmes