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By Sam Rith
Phnom Penh Post

Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister, gave his ministers a 30-day ultimatum to bring the latest outbreak of avian influenza under control or face dismissal. But experts doubt the deadline can be met.
The move to step up the fight against the deadly virus – made on Sept. 29 – came after the United Nations and the country’s health authorities conceded that the outbreak would prove extremely difficult to stamp out. Experts say the latest problem areas are more widely scattered than during previous infections.

The World Health Organization said it could take years to bring the virus in poultry under control. WHO added that research showed
that the virus can survive for long periods in the tissues and feces of diseased birds and in water, especially when temperatures are low.

WHO warned that the risk of direct transmission of bird flu from birds to humans was greatest in persons having close contact with live infected poultry. In particular, those involved in slaughtering infected chickens were at risk of "brief but intensive exposure to the virus."

Boonlom Cheva-Isarakul, associate professor at Chiang Mai University’s Department of Animal Science, said the Thai government’s one-month policy was unrealistic. She said there are a lot of birds everywhere in the country. “I don’t think one month is enough to wipe out the outbreak of avian influenza,” she said. “It is impossible.”

Boonlom said it could take time to educate people about the disease and how to prevent the virus from spreading. Bird flu is difficult to control, she said, because Thai people like to hide their chickens from the government’s eradication program.

Maitree Chankaew, a village assistant in Kheng Kah village just outside Chiang Mai, said he had to kill backyard chickens in 50 households during the first outbreak. The outbreak began in mid-November 2003, according to scientists, but was not confirmed by the government until January 23, 2004.

During the first outbreak, the Thai government was widely criticized for its handling of the crisis. Many people accused the authorities of covering up the outbreak to help protect Thailand’s position as the world’s fourth largest exporter of chicken.

About 100 million chickens across the region were slaughtered to halt the spread of bird flu, and 24 people died from the disease in Vietnam and Thailand. At least 34 people were infected early this year, according to the WHO.

Maitree said that when he killed villagers’ chickens during the first outbreak, some people got angry with him because during that time villagers did not know much about bird flu.

Sompol Yotdet, 47, a farmer in Kheng Kan village, said the government destroyed his chickens even though they were healthy. They were destroyed because his farm was located within 5 km. of a place of infection.

“Before my chickens were slaughtered, I used to hear information about bird flu, but it was like a rumor because there had been no confirmation from the government,” he said. Sompol said that if the government had informed people on time, the first outbreak might be not have been as serious as it was.

The government declared on May 14 that the country was free of the disease. But in June, another outbreak occurred at a poultry farm in Ayuthaya province.

The Livestock Development Department did not notify the public until July 6. The disease spread to other provinces in central Thailand, including Pathum Thani.

The second wave of bird flu killed three people and infected another who survived. Another 125 people were suspected of having bird flu, but health officials were not able to confirm the presence of the virus from blood tests. The government ended up dismissing several top officials at the Ministry of Public Health.

Recently, Thaksin snubbed the Livestock Department’s proposal to produce bird flu vaccine and strongly criticized the department for confusing the public over the issue. The prime minister ordered all government agencies not to give any press interviews on the issue without touching base with Deputy Prime Minister Chaturon Chaisang first.

Some critics said the decision would harm the public’s right to receive timely information on the situation.

While the Thai government is rushing to get rid of bird flu in a month, the Vietnamese government says it will take at least five more years to stamp it out. The government admitted that it was too quick to declare an outbreak over earlier this year, naming bird flu a “local epidemic” that could erupt anywhere.

The Vietnamese government is isolating farms, people and areas suspected of having the disease. In addition, it has checkpoints at the gates to big cities, provinces and industrial zones.

Twenty Vietnamese people have died and more than 50 million poultry either died or were slaughtered because of bird flu.

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