Bird Flu Resurfaces in Vietnam

Two cases of human infection of bird flu have been reported in Vietnam. There had been no fresh reports of the illness since 2005, but in the last month 16 provinces have reported outbreaks among poultry. Vietnam has a rather sophisticated early warning and response program for bird flu outbreaks, but some are concerned that complacency is setting in.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Think of this next story as a lesson in the challenges of containing bird flu. That's the disease that worries health officials around the world, including in the United States. Some of the latest news is that there is a new outbreak in Vietnam. There had been no fresh reports of this illness for some time in Vietnam, but in the last month 16 provinces have reported outbreaks among poultry. And for the first time since 2005, two human cases have been reported. NPR's Michael Sullivan has more.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: It's harvest time in Ha Tay Province, not far from Hanoi, and Wen Fan Duan's(ph) ducks are busy scouring the rice paddies near his farm looking for foods, and they don't like interruptions.

(Soundbite of ducks)

SULLIVAN: Duan has about 2,000 ducks, and most, he says, have been vaccinated against H5N1. Most, he says, but not all.

Mr. WEN FAN DUAN (Farmer): (Vietnamese spoken)

SULLIVAN: Some of the ducklings haven't been vaccinated, he says, but I'm not worried about them because I know the man I got them from vaccinated their parents, so that's good enough for now, he says.

This faulty logic or complacency may help explain the recent outbreaks of bird flu in the north. The Vietnamese government's recent decision to lift its two-year-old ban on the hatching of ducks and geese may be another reason.

Mr. JEFF GILBERT (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization): The ban - cessation of the ban has led to a massive increase in hatching and production of waterfall.

SULLIVAN: Jeff Gilbert is the avian flue point person at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization office in Hanoi. Both the FAO and the World Health Organization supported the government's decision to lift the ban, worried that people would go on raising ducks and geese anyway underground and unvaccinated. But the decision to lift the ban appears to have created a short-term problem.

Mr. GILBERT: The problem is that a lot of these ducks are arriving in the rice paddies, having missed the spring campaign for vaccination because they weren't born when that started, and they arrived in the locality after the campaign has passed. So they are there for susceptible and then you get disease outbreaks such as we're seeing.

SULLIVAN: Gilbert says he's confident these latest outbreaks can be contained, and so is Hans Troedsson, who heads the Hanoi office of the World Health Organization.

Mr. HANS TROEDSSON (World Health Organization): I'm not more worried now than I was a year ago. I think the situation is quite similar, even if they are bit different, that we see the first human cases in one-and-a-half year. My concern is rather the difficulties to really eliminate the virus. We know that this can't be done in one or two years; it's a much longer-term undertaking, but of course the more provinces we see affected, the more difficult it is to contain it.

SULLIVAN: The Vietnamese government this week pledged to step up it's vaccination and surveillance campaigns in order to stamp out the latest outbreaks. Both the WHOs Hans Troedsson and the FAOs Jeff Gilbert say Vietnam has done a good job overall in containing avian influenza, but both urge Vietnam and its Southeast Asian neighbors to remain vigilant. Jeff Gilbert...

Mr. GILBERT: In the medium to long term, the issue here is that we have dangerously high densities of poultry in the whole region; things aren't going to change. The ducks and poultry numbers aren't going to go away and we just need a better control, because if it's not H5N1, in a few years another influenza combination virus or something - something else could easily emerge.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.

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