The recent spate of avian flu outbreaks throughout many parts of Asia is prompting a renewed pandemic risk, bearing semblance to the 30-country tally last year.
Just last week, China confirmed its first case of H5N1 virus in months. Indonesia has already experienced four deaths from the virus this year, bringing the new tally to a world record of 61. New cases have also surfaced in South Korea, while Hong Kong reported of diseased birds only two weeks ago.
Thailand’s duck population in the northern province of Phitsanulok dwindled as close to 2,000 birds were culled after some of them had tested positive for the disease. Vietnam suffered the same fate, albeit at higher risk since the virus appears to be spreading across the southern Mekong Delta, a major rice-growing region.
Japan provides the starkest case of H5N1 resurgence, with more than 4,000 chickens dying from the disease in Miyazaki prefecture in the southwestern part of the country – the first bird flu incident in three years.
In response, the countries have taken several measures to prevent further outbreak and to stem the risk of human-to-human infections. Japan has ordered poultry farms nationwide to provide weekly updates on the health of their flocks, and culled around 8,000 birds to prevent the disease from spreading. Local authorities in southwestern Japan will begin incinerating 12,000 dead chickens on a farm later on January 22.
Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso has set a deadline of February 1 for imposing a ban on backyard poultry. City officials have started mapping poultry populations in preparation for the ban. Whilst they have promised to compensate private and commercial poultry owners for all birds they cull, the estimated amount of Rp 16 billion may prove to be too huge for realisation. Elsewhere, the country has prepared more hospitals, as the existing ones are under pressure trying to cope with an overwhelming number of patients with bird flu symptoms.
Even while Indonesian officials have claimed a drop in bird flu-related human deaths over the past few months across the country with the launch of public awareness campaigns, the risk remains high in areas such as the province of West Java, where the highest number of bird flu infections is recorded.
Elsewhere in Hong Kong, the authorities launched a campaign on January 16 to remind residents to observe good personal hygiene after a bird with H5N1 virus was found dead early this year, the city's second infection in two weeks. The alert remains high especially with the upcoming Chinese New Year festivities where chicken is normally featured highly as a traditional Lunar New Year dish.. Along with chicken, pet birds are also in high demand, as it is a traditional Buddhist custom to free caged animals in order to bring good luck for the coming year.
The problem is compounded by reports of a rise in bird smuggling into Hong Kong from China to meet the demand, particularly after strict import quotas and checks on live birds imported from China had been imposed after the 1997 outbreak. In response, increased customs patrols were set up along the border.
In Beijing, the state media reported that China would spend US$1 billion over the next two years on animal-borne diseases, set up a national animal epidemic-prevention system, expand supervision and train more vets. As one of the world’s largest bird flu “hotspots”, China also has the world's largest stock of poultry. According to the China Daily, 'the authorities hope to control or even eradicate severe animal diseases like bird flu and foot-and-mouth disease by 2015.'
According to the World Health Organisation's global influenza programme coordinator, Keiji Fukuda, this year’s pattern can be attributed to a rise in human and poultry H5N1 infections during the Northern Hemisphere winter months. Yet, he added in an address to reporters on January 16 that, 'in many ways, we don't understand all of the factors which allow H5N1 to spread.'
Festive bird smuggling industry raises H5N1 fears in Hong Kong (AFP/ The Straits Times, 15 January 2007)
Fresh bird flu outbreak in Japan prompts chicken culling (AFP/ The Straits Times, 15 January 2007)
West Java 'slow' to admit bird flu danger (Jakarta Post, 15 January 2007)
Jakarta bird flu hospital overwhelmed with patients (Reuters/ The Straits Times, 15 January 2007)
Number of bird flu patients in Jakarta hospital increases (Antara, 16 January 2007)
Rash of bird flu cases across Asia raises alarm (Reuters/ The Straits Times, 17 January 2007)
City workers prepare for bird culls (Jakarta Post, 17 January 2007)
Asia battles bird flu (Reuters/AP/The Straits Times, 18 January 2007)