Deadly bird flu returns to Thailand

Related tags Bird flu Avian influenza

Thailand has confirmed a new bout of bird flu, sparking fears of a
return of the winter outbreak that left over 20 people dead and
devastated the region's poultry industry, writes Anthony

Officials confirmed a case of the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus at a farm in central Thailand. All the surviving chickens at the farm in Ayutthaya province have been culled after some 7,000 of 44,000 birds perished from disease in the last fortnight.

Newin Chidchob, the deputy agriculture minister, said officials had also culled another 800 chickens in the neighbouring province of Pathum Thani where 70 had died from suspected bird flu and he admitted the outbreak could spread to other provinces.

The new outbreak is likely to highlight concerns about the standard of global poultry production practices and the trustworthiness of the Thai government. Following the last outbreak, the FAO warned the country not to restock its poultry flocks too quickly.

The agency said that before restocking, the country must prove the absence of virus circulation by virus research, serological surveys and the use of non-vaccinated susceptible chickens (so-called sentinels) on infected sites to test if they become infected, monitor the movement of poultry and contaminated goods to avoid the reintroduction of the virus from affected areas and prevent contact between domestic and wild birds.

In addition, the FAO called on the country to apply intensive disease surveillance to ensure potential new infections are discovered immediately. But the recurrence of the disease, so soon after the government declared the country to be virus-free, is worrying.

"I'm not that surprised,"​ British Poultry Council chief executive Peter Bradnock told "The disease was widespread in the subsistence sector of domestic production, and it will take time and effort for the disease to be fully eradicated."

There will undoubtedly be calls for the Thai government to justify the speed with which it has restocked its poultry flocks. Last winter, the government was in denial for weeks before finally admitting the existence of a widespread bird flu outbreak.

"Thailand's leaders characteristically express over-confidence and premature over-reassurance in the face of the unknown and unproven,"​ said Jody Lanard, a US-based risk communication consultant earlier this year. "They have done the same thing regarding SARS preparation, and regarding terrorism."

It would appear that the same suspicions have been aroused with regard to the current outbreak. The government has been accused of protecting some of the country's huge producers despite the threat to human health.

According to news agency AFP, Thai authorities claim to have told the World Organisation for Animal Health about the chicken deaths on Saturday but not the Thai people because the case had not then been confirmed.

"We did not inform the public about the new outbreak because we assumed that Thai people no longer care about the re-emergence of bird flu which has become an ordinary incident here,"​ Yukol Limlaemthong, director-general of the country's livestock department, was quoted as saying in the Bangkok Post.

The worry now is whether Thailand can be trusted as international trade partner. Thai poultry exports to the EU are enormous - the UK alone imports over 40,000 tonnes each year. A fresh poultry ban that was extended by the EU last week until December 2004.

It is unclear at the moment whether this new development will adversely affect European producers. Following the winter outbreak, Bradnock expressed concern that a degree of misinformation was already finding its way into the public domain.

"In the UK, there is a big ad for Marks & Spencer's chicken products, which says 'We can trace it, so you can trust it'. So we can see retailers upping the ante already. The problem of course is that this is not a food safety issue."

As Bradnock points out, the disease is spread not as the result of malpractice but naturally, usually by wild waterfowl. Because European birds are often kept in doors and are not transported live to the retailer, the chances of the disease taking hold are much reduced.

But in regions where birds are often kept outside, are close to water and are transported live to huge marketplaces, the risk of infection is increased. "The one predictable thing about bird flu is its unpredictability,"​ said Bradnock.

China also announced a new outbreak of bird flu this week, nearly four months after claiming it had beaten the virus that had infected flocks in about half of its 31 provinces. As in Thailand, Chinese media reported that the latest outbreak may have been caused by migratory birds.

Over 40 per cent of the world's poultry population is located in Asia, and the continent accounts for 25 per cent of world trade in poultry. But the avian bird flu epidemic decimated poultry industries in the region, especially in Vietnam and Thailand.

An estimated 38 million poultry died in Vietnam, and Thailand, whose poultry export business annually tops $1 billion, was forced to cull over 25 million chickens.

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