Nightmare scenario

FEARING a repeat of the SARS' epidemic suspicions over the spread of bird flu are growing with the reports that a second child in Thailand died from the disease in 24 hours.

Experts have called for an urgent international summit to halt the outbreak, which has so far claimed eight victims. Outbreaks of bird flu have so far been reported in Cambodia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. In Pakistan also a form of the disease in its chicken population has been detected. Other Asian governments are frantically culling chickens in millions in a bid to contain the disease - and to rein in the growing political fallout from claims that officials initially covered up outbreaks of the disease. Despite concerns over the economic and social fallout from mass slaughter campaigns, experts say mass culling is the only way to be sure of halting outbreaks of highly infectious animal diseases such as the bird flu rampaging across Asia. Thailand's Army has now joined a massive cull of chickens. At least nine million chickens have been slaughtered since November. But these efforts are accompanied by a rising domestic outcry over the Thai government's handling of the outbreak. A strain of the bird flu first appeared in Hong Kong in 1997. Six people died before that outbreak was contained through a mass three-day slaughter of birds in the territory. Now WHO is concerned about the risk of the epidemic spreading into China and has complained that Beijing had failed to provide information it requested a week ago. WHO is urging the global scientific community to accelerate search for the cure. Not only do vaccines take time to develop, they must also be produced in vast quantities to cover the literally billions of farmed chickens across Asia. By then, it will probably be too late. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation says its scientists are looking at possible alternatives to culling, which is distressing for farmers and the public, and potentially ruinous for local and national economies. But in the face of a fast-spreading regional epidemic, which has touched 10 countries there seems to be only one solution for now. Asia is keeping its collective fingers crossed that the rapid spread of deadly bird flu will take a much milder economic toll on the region than last year's SARS epidemic assuming the economic damage is limited to the poultry industry.

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