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Richard Ehrlich: Thailand Denies Bird Flu Cover-up

Thailand Denies Bird Flu Cover-up


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Wobbling after widespread condemnation of dangerously unethical behavior, the Thai government denied on Saturday (Jan. 24) it covered up the spread of bird flu, suspected of killing at least one person in Thailand and five others in Vietnam.

If the bird flu virus continues to mutate, it could latch onto a human influenza virus, exchange genetic material and create a new, uncontrolled people-killer, according to the World Health Organization.

"There was no attempt at covering up," government spokesman Jakrapob Penkair said in an interview when asked to respond to allegations that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra concealed the disease's spread until it was too late.

"We killed seven million chickens [but] we don't know" how many more birds must be slaughtered to stop the disease, Mr. Jakrapob said.

Throughout the countryside, workers with protective cloth wrapped around their mouths methodically stuffed frenzied chickens into huge bags, hurled them into freshly dug pits and then buried the bagged chickens alive.

They also sprayed eggs, already stacked in crates, before selling them in markets.

Fear of squawking hens and roosters has gripped this tropical Southeast Asian country, despite government announcements that cooked chickens and eggs were fine to eat because most of the danger came from handling infected live poultry.

"I'm afraid to eat it and then get the disease," a thirtysomething Thai manager said, munching pork, noodles and broccoli instead.

"Even they say you can eat it, I'm not going to eat it," she said.

"More Thai lies," fumed a British manager of a strip-tease bar who worried that the deadly disease would cripple the tourism industry.

"I have a title for the Thai government's attempted cover-up: 'One Flew Over the Chicken's Nest'," the burly manager said.

"Worried about bird flu? Don't be," announced the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), a booster for tourism.

"At this stage, it seems there is very little risk to travelers, and the World Health Organization has not issued any travel advisories related to bird flu.

"Even if you travel to countries where the disease has been detected, you are not at risk of catching bird flu unless you come into direct contact with contaminated chickens or ducks. That prospect is increasingly unlikely as these countries are culling millions of birds to prevent the spread of the disease," Bangkok-based PATA said.

Government officials spent the past 10 days insisting that chickens were dying because of a common cholera bacteria, and not the stronger, more fatal, avian flu virus.

As a result, local media splashed illustrations assuring people that the bacteria was mild and totally different from bird flu.

Suspicion increased, however, after government officials mouthed sketchy statements and appeared irritated by queries focusing on bird flu.

To sway a jittery public, the prime minister and his colleagues publicly devoured a big feast of deliciously cooked, Thai-style chicken dishes in a nationwide television broadcast.

"The government's efforts to sweep the problem under the carpet has exploded in its face, leaving the poultry industry in tatters and the very safety of the public in jeopardy," an editorial in the respected Bangkok Post newspaper said on Saturday (Jan. 24).

Until a few weeks ago, Thailand was merrily predicting its credit-crazy economy would blossom despite warnings of a swelling "bubble" which could eventually collapse -- similar to the 1997 financial meltdown which slashed the currency to half its value.

The chicken industry was one of the strongest financial pillars of Thailand, pumping more than 1.5 billion U.S. dollars into the economy each year through exports. Virtually overnight, however, it has been wiped out due to blockades against importing Thai chicken in Europe, Japan and elsewhere because of the disease.

Chicken exporters slumped on Bangkok's stock market. More than three million Thais, mostly on farms, are also reeling from the sudden slaughter of their poultry and the industry's implosion.

KFC, with its Colonel Sanders logo visible in many Thai cities, is now trying to lure diners by declaring its chicken is safe from disease -- after recently fending off animal rights activists who condemned KFC for allegedly torturing its birds.

Some of the world's biggest chicken farms were to be built by Saha Farms Group, a major poultry producer, but that plan "will be stalled until we see improvement in the situation," said Saha's chairman, Panya Chotitawan.

Opposition politicians, meanwhile, threatened a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Thaksin, who enjoys strong personal support from U.S. President George W. Bush for his crackdown on suspected Islamic terrorists, illicit drugs and for providing Thai troops to the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To deflect criticism, an "international conference" will meet in Bangkok on Wednesday (Jan. 28) to find ways of "containing the bird flu," Mr. Jakrapob said.

Health and agriculture officials from the United States, the European Union, Japan, China, Vietnam and other concerned countries -- plus the United Nations' World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) -- were expected to attend, the government spokesman added.

They will study how the H5N1 strains of bird flu virus, extracted from stricken people and birds, mutate and spread.

The virus can jump from birds to people, but there were no immediately confirmed cases of people-to-people transmission.

"We contained SARS," a confident Mr. Jakrapob said, referring to Thailand's widely praised success in stemming last April's outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome which killed hundreds of people throughout the world, including at least two in Thailand.

He expressed confidence that Thailand's internationally assisted medical establishment could contain bird flu until all endangered chickens were culled.

A Thai farmer, suspected of being infected by bird flu, died on Friday (Jan. 23) and two Thai boys were hospitalized for treatment of the disease.

*****

Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/glossograph/

-ENDS-


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