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WHO, FAO Seek to Investigate Avian Flu Outbreaks in Vietnam

In December, avian influenza broke out in three southern Vietnamese provinces. Although Vietnam has a record of acting quickly to halt outbreaks of the virus, this time, farmers were reluctant to inform the government, slowing containment efforts. Matt Steinglass has more from Hanoi.

Vietnamese animal health authorities say they have destroyed 24,000 birds so far in Ca Mau, Bac Lieu, and An Giang provinces in an effort to stop the H5N1 flu virus from spreading.

Officials at the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization are talking with the Vietnamese government to send experts to investigate the source of the outbreaks.

Aphaluck Bhatiasevi is a spokeswoman for the FAO's Hanoi office. She says a few outbreaks are to be expected, but that more information is needed to determine how the virus has spread.

"The recent outbreak is not surprising, because we know that the virus is still present," she said. "The information that we've got so far is that the recent outbreaks were triggered as a result of the illegal raising of ducks."

The government has banned farmers from breeding ducks. But experts say many farmers ignore the ban.

The H5N1 virus can kill thousands of birds in a few days if unchecked. It also can infect humans and is responsible for more than 150 human deaths worldwide since 2003. Almost all human victims caught the disease by handling sick birds, but scientists fear the virus could mutate so that it spreads easily among people. That could set off a flu pandemic that would sicken millions of people.

Some international organizations have held Vietnam up as a model for other developing nations coping with bird flu. A year ago, officials vaccinated tens of millions of chickens across the country, and culled millions more to halt outbreaks.

Patrice Gautier, the head of Veterinarians Without Borders' Vietnam office, says the government is still doing a good job.

"Even if we have outbreaks now in Vietnam, I don't expect them to spread a lot," she said. "The veterinary services in Vietnam have now the capacity to identify and act much quicker than they did in the first wave. The challenge is not to prevent the first one, because it's impossible. The challenge is really to limit the spread of the first one and the second one."

Gautier says the issue in the recent outbreaks was not the central government's control efforts, but getting rural residents to tell the government sooner about outbreaks. Many farmers are reluctant to inform the government, because they do not want their flocks culled.

The first cases of avian influenza began on December 6, but the government's official report of the outbreaks was not issued until December 19. The government has criticized officials in Ca Mau and Bac Lieu provinces for not reacting more quickly to the outbreaks.

Hoang Van Nam, vice director of Vietnam's Department of Animal Health, says An Giang Province has done a better job.

Nam says Ca Mau and Bac Lieu were a week late in reporting their initial outbreaks. He says it was the farmers who failed to report their sick birds, and that local officials reacted quickly when they learned of the problem.

Gautier says Vietnam has gotten progressively better at containing avian influenza outbreaks. But it will take time for every Vietnamese farmer to get the message that they are better off reporting their sick birds to the authorities than hiding them.