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29 Tigers Possibly Killed By Bird Flu In Thailand

29 Tigers Possibly Killed By Bird Flu In Thailand


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- At least 29 caged tigers died from influenza in less than a week at a zoo near Bangkok, possibly from being fed the diseased, raw carcasses of chickens infected with bird flu, according to the U.N.'s World Health Organization (WHO).

The trapped, black-striped Bengal tigers perished from the virus at a rate of about four or five animals a day, while confused Thai zoo officials wondered why so many were collapsing at the Sriracha Tiger Zoo, which had a total of 441 tigers before the disease struck.

The surviving tigers spent Wednesday (Oct. 20) pacing their enclosures or crouching in awe while a Thai worker wearing a cloth face mask sprayed disinfectant from a portable, shiny metal cylinder strapped to his back.

"The latest information I have is that there is a total of 29 dead tigers, since the 14th of October until now, out of 441 tigers in that tiger farm," said the WHO's head representative in Thailand, Dr. William Aldis, in an interview on Wednesday (Oct. 20).

"We are not actually sure yet if they had bird flu. Investigations are going on," said Dr. Aldis, an American from Sylva, North Carolina.

"They had an influenza of some kind, in the 'A' class. Bird flu is one of those 'A' class influenzas," he said.

"It seems likely" bird flu killed the tigers after they were fed "chicken carcasses that may have been infected," Dr. Aldis said.

"Tigers and domestic cats have been infected with bird flu before" elsewhere in the world, Dr. Aldis said.

As a standard practice, more than 10 tons of raw chicken meat is dumped into the enclosures each day to feed the beasts, which are carnivorous feline mammals, zoo officials said.

The privately-run zoo, just southeast of Bangkok in Chonburi province along the tourist-thronged Gulf of Thailand, was shut to the public after corpses of dead tigers began piling up.

While WHO and Thai officials conducted more tests to confirm if the dead tigers contracted bird flu from infected chicken meat, medical officials were also trying to guard against "infections that start out in animals and go to people," Dr. Aldis said.

Thailand's ministries of health, agriculture, interior and other sectors were checking the health of at least "200 people in and around the tiger farm area, and another 600 people at a chicken processing plant where some of the [tigers'] food came from," Dr. Aldis said.

At least 31 people died in Asia from bird flu this year, including 11 people in Thailand and 20 in Vietnam, mostly from close contact with -- or consumption of -- infected chickens.

Officials said the tiger deaths began on Oct. 14, the same day the 13th meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) finished a 12-day summit in Bangkok.

Among other concerns, the CITES summit warned about the future existence of wild tigers, especially in China and India, because tigers were being illegally caught, skinned and disemboweled for their lucrative pelts and body parts.

Smuggling of tiger skins was "spiraling out of control," officials at the summit declared, but CITES did not make a priority announcement about threat to tigers from bird flu and other diseases while in zoos.

In September, Thailand declared bird flu as a national "enemy" after the world's first "probable" human-to-human infection killed at least one Thai woman and perhaps infected her relatives.

WHO and other health officials meanwhile played down public anxiety over a deadlier mutant virus eventually evolving from avian influenza in Asia.

But they warned if bird flu's killer H5N1 virus enters someone who is already suffering from human influenza, the two viruses could combine and mutate into a new, uncontrollable "submicroscopic parasite" which could slay countless people, similar to the Spanish influenza which killed tens of millions of victims in 1918.

That danger has not started again now because people who became sick or died from bird flu in Asia were previously healthy before contracting the H5N1 virus.

Thailand's multi-billion-dollar chicken meat business, which exports huge amounts of raw, frozen and processed poultry throughout the world, has suffered some problems because foreign importers have become skittish about the safety of Thai chickens.

Bird flu often spreads when live infected chickens, ducks, or other birds cluster together on farms or appear in markets for sale, and when their excrement contaminates farm and market equipment, cages, bird food, transport vehicles, workers' clothing and other objects, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

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Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 26 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 www.geocities.com/glossograph/


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