Bird flu spreads in Vietnam after culling delay

An outbreak of the H5N1 avian flu virus on a farm in Vietnam's Mekong Delta has spread to five neighboring hamlets because farmers and local officials waited two weeks before culling infected birds, a senior government official said Wednesday.

Deputy Minister of Agriculture Diep Kinh Tan said the flu had spread to birds on eight farms in six hamlets of Ca Mau, Vietnam's southernmost province. He said 3,300 chickens and ducks had been destroyed by local authorities, reported dpa.

Tan criticized local officials and farmers for failing to act quickly, allowing the flu to spread. Birds began dying on the first affected farm in mid-January, but authorities did not begin culling them until January 30.

On Monday, the head of Khanh Binh commune, where the outbreak started, blamed the farm's owner, who he said did not report it until January 29. Tan said local authorities and farmers became lax in late 2008 because they thought they had prevented future outbreaks.

"Many farmers do not vaccinate their fowl," Tan said. "Worse, there are cases of people throwing dead ducks in canals. Canals distribute germs, so the risk of this dangerous disease spreading is very high."

At a meeting of the National Steering Committee to Prevent Avian Flu on Tuesday, Tan said his ministry had asked all localities to go on high alert to detect and halt the disease.

But Hoang Van Nam, deputy director of the Department of Animal Health, said the cooperation of local officials was doubtful.

"All the guideline documents have been made available in the localities," Nam said. "But will they implement them? That is the important thing."

Officials said the risk of contagion is high because farmers in the Mekong Delta are harvesting their spring-winter rice crops, and allow flocks of ducks to move from farm to farm to eat the leftover rice kernels.

"Bird flu in Ca Mau Province could turn into a serious epidemic for the whole region if the localities don't obey regulations to prevent and fight the epidemic," Tan said.

So far this year, more than 16,000 fowl have been destroyed due to bird flu in three provinces of Vietnam.

The government has required all domestic fowl to be vaccinated for avian influenza since 2005. But many ducks and chickens on small farms go unvaccinated, and some animal health experts believe the goal of full inoculation in the country is unrealistic.

Vietnam's first human case of bird flu this year was reported in January when a 13-year-old girl from Thanh Hoa province, 150 kilometres south of Hanoi, tested positive for the virus.

The girl's older sister died on January 2 in Thanh Hoa after displaying symptoms consistent with bird flu, but doctors failed to test for the virus, and her body was not exhumed for testing because of religious reasons.

Avian influenza has infected 106 people in Vietnam and killed 52 since it first appeared in the country in late 2003.

The disease is usually spread by contact between sick birds and humans, but scientists fear that the virus could mutate into a form that is easily transmissible among humans and spark a global pandemic that could kill millions.

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