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    Bird Flu Re-Emerges in Thai Fowl, Spreads in Southern Vietnam

    By Jason Gale and Karima Anjani

    Jan. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Bird flu resurfaced in Thailand and spread to a seventh Vietnamese province in a fresh wave of poultry outbreaks in Asia. Officials in Egypt are testing a 20- year-old woman suspected of being the country's 19th case.

    The H5N1 strain of avian influenza killed ducks in a northern Thai province, the first outbreak reported in more than five months in the world's fourth-largest poultry-exporting country. The virus also infected ducks in Vietnam's southern Soc Trang province, after re-emerging in fowl in Japan last week.

    The new infections signal a resurgence of outbreaks similar to last year, when the virus spread to more than 30 countries in the first quarter. Diseased birds risk infecting humans and provide more chances for H5N1 to mutate into a pandemic form. Millions could die if the virus becomes more contagious and starts spreading as easily as seasonal flu.

    ``The more people that the virus infects,'' the more likely it is to reach people who are also infected with seasonal flu, said John Weaver, a senior technical adviser on avian flu with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This would create opportunities for ``a third virus, the pandemic strain, appearing,'' Weaver said in a Jan. 12 interview.

    The H5N1 strain is known to have infected 265 people in 10 countries since 2003, killing 159 of them, the World Health Organization said on Jan. 12.

    Infections in birds and people are increasing, particularly in Asia, where the virus was first identified a decade ago. Hong Kong, South Korea and Nigeria have reported diseased birds in the past month, while Indonesia, China and Egypt found new human cases.

    Egyptian Woman

    A 20-year-old woman is being treated for suspected avian flu at a hospital in Fayoum, southwest of Cairo, the government-run newspaper Al-Ghomhuria reported, without citing a source for the information. A 23-year-old woman died from virus in the same province, Al-Ghomhuria said. The WHO office in Cairo and Egypt's Health Ministry wouldn't confirm the report.

    The health ministry also found four poultry outbreaks in the delta governorate of Qaliyoubia, in northern Egypt, the newspaper said.

    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 or plucking feathers.

    Thailand's Agricultural Ministry said about 2,100 poultry were culled to contain an outbreak in the province of Phitsanulok, about 377 kilometers (234 miles) north of the capital, Bangkok. Outbreaks in the Southeast Asian country last year killed three people in July and August.

    Japanese Investigation

    Japan's Agriculture Minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka will return early from a visit to the U.S. to assist officials in containing an outbreak on the southern island of Kyushu, where 3,900 chickens died of the disease and more than 8,000 fowl were culled.

    The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries plans to release a preliminary report of an investigation into the outbreak, which occurred on a farm in Miyazaki prefecture, Vice Minister Yoshio Kobayashi told reporters in Tokyo today.

    In Indonesia, a man whose wife and teenage son were infected with H5N1 tested negative for the virus, easing concern that the cases may indicate a change in the virus's ability to sicken people.

    Disease trackers were monitoring the 42-year-old closely. Had he tested positive, it might have indicated the virus was capable of infecting those without genetic susceptibility to infection, a theory doctors have used to explain previous clusters among blood relatives.

    Indonesian Cluster

    The concern is that the virus may eventually overcome a ``genetic component'' that has appeared so far to limit its ability to infect people, Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy in Minneapolis, said in a Jan. 12 interview. ``If that happens, then to me that is the really first worrisome piece of information that the pandemic may be pending.''

    The southeast Asian nation attracted international attention in May when blood relatives from the island of Sumatra contracted the H5N1 virus, six of them fatally. The cases represented the largest reported cluster of infections and the first laboratory- proven instance of human-to-human transmission.

    ``We have had enough proof from these clusters that there is something about at least certain genetically related individuals in whom the virus does fairly well,'' Osterholm said. ``That, to me, is not necessarily a big barrier to cross.''

    To contact the reporters on this story: Jason Gale in Singapore at ; Karima Anjani in Jakarta at
    ?Addressing chronic disease is an issue of human rights ? that must be our call to arms"
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