Thursday, June 01, 2006

HEALTH:Bird Flu Adds to Indonesia's Woes

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, May 30 (IPS) - Fears that Indonesia may emerge as the epicentre of a global bird flu pandemic are adding to the woes of a country struggling to cope with the aftermath of Saturday's temblor that left more than 5,500 people dead in central Java.

Reports of seven bird flu deaths in a single family, in northern Sumatra, have exacerbated the fears.

Indonesia has witnessed 33 bird flu deaths so far, compared to 42 in Vietnam. But, while Vietnam has recorded no outbreaks in its poultry flocks since December last year, the archipelagic country is still struggling to contain the deadly H5N1 virus that has spread to 27 of its 33 provinces.

Of all the countries that have been affected, Indonesia has suffered the highest number of human fatalities since the beginning of the year. The current global death toll stands at 124 in nine countries out of more than 220 infections in 10 countries.

Most worrying to epidemiologists and public health experts is the recent confirmation of a large cluster of bird flu deaths in Simbelang, a remote village in Sumatra. ''This is unprecedented,'' Peter Cordingley, spokesman for the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Western Pacific regional office, told IPS.

Over the weekend, international health experts decided to increase the number of Indonesians in Simbelang placed under quarantine in order to limit the possible spread of H5N1 virus through the human-to-human route. Fifty four villagers were confined to their homes, up from the initial 33 that WHO experts thought were vulnerable.

According to the WHO, most of the family members had died from bird flu during the first two weeks of May. But the Geneva-based health body also confirmed, last week, that the seven members of this family who succumbed to the virus may have infected one another.

As one Thai health expert explained, reports of such clusters are a cause for greater concern -- than reports of an isolated fatality --because of the possibility that the H5N1 virus could mutate into a strain that is capable of being passed among humans..

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