Global Health

Vietnam, Hardest Hit by Bird Flu, Steps Up Fight

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A boy in front of a chicken farm near Hanoi, Vietnam, Nov. 17.

A boy in front of a chicken farm near Hanoi, Vietnam, Nov. 17. Reuters hide caption

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The confirmation of human cases of bird flu in China has brought the virus back on the public's radar. So far, there's no sign of human-to-human transmission. Vietnam, which has had the most human victims of the bird flu, has stepped up the fight against the virus.


Today newspapers in China gave prominent coverage to the country's first cases of bird flu in humans, including the death of at least one person. As China battled to contain the outbreak of the H5N1 virus in poultry in several provinces, officials had warned that human infection was inevitable. Now so far, there's been no sign of human-to-human transmission as opposed to going from poultry to humans. And today the World Health Organization played down that particular threat. The country where the most human victims of bird flu live right now is Vietnam, and so we're going to NPR's Michael Sullivan, who lives in Hanoi.

And, Michael, how many cases are we talking about here?


Hi, Steve. We've had just about 40 people die here in Vietnam in the past two years, and that's the most by far of any country where bird flu has killed people. The others are Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, now I guess China as well. So Vietnam has had the majority of the cases reported and the majority of the deaths as well. And I was struck, when I came back to Vietnam from Cambodia yesterday, by the number of provinces here that are now reporting outbreaks of bird flu. We're now up to 14. That's nearly a quarter of all the provinces in the country. And in the 10 days I've been gone, the authorities have definitely stepped up efforts to try to contain the spread of this thing.

INSKEEP: Since people around the world are concerned about this disease, I suppose this amounts to an opportunity for people to see how Vietnam fights it and whether it works. What is Vietnam doing to contain the virus?

SULLIVAN: Well, they're clearly trying to slow the spread of the virus before the winter hits in earnest, because that's when we've tended to see it spread here in the past, and they're being far more aggressive about that than before in terms of timing. In the past, when they've banned the sale of live poultry, for example, in urban areas, they haven't done so until January. Now they're doing it in Ho Chi Minh City, in Da Nang and here in Hanoi now, this week. And it's not just the sale. They've basically said there will be no more live poultry or water fowl in these urban areas, period. So no more ducks, no more fighting cocks, either. And many people keep and raise both, even in the cities. So they're out, too. No one is allowed to keep them or sell them in these three urban areas anymore.

INSKEEP: Is that a big change in those areas, and are people actually complying as far as you can tell?

SULLIVAN: It is a big change, and judging from what I saw today, it's pretty effective. And I think this may be one of the advantages of living in a one-party state with a strong security apparatus. When they decide to do something, it gets done pretty quickly. There were no live chickens or ducks in the markets today here in Hanoi, at least the markets I went to. And there were no more fighting cocks in a few of the neighborhoods, including the one I used to live in, where they were plentiful just a few weeks ago. You've got health workers going round the neighborhoods here, looking for people who may be trying to hide birds, and you've got police on the roads leading into the city, making sure that nobody brings any live birds in. What this means is, there's no chicken left to buy almost anywhere, and, of course, there's no fresh eggs, either.

INSKEEP: Michael, you've got family living with you in Vietnam. You've got kids. What precautions do you take?

SULLIVAN: Well, I'm concerned, and, you know, half the people, Steve, who have been known to have gotten the disease have died, and most of them have been here in Vietnam. So we've tried to take some precautions. We've laid in a pretty good supply of the antiviral Tamiflu, and I've bought tickets for my wife and my children so they can leave if and when it does turn ugly. But, of course, I'm a little worried that countries I might want to send them to, like the US, might close their airports to flights from affected areas should things turn nasty. But it's still really early. We'll just have to wait and see what happens if it does start going human to human.

INSKEEP: OK. NPR's Michael Sullivan, living that story as well as reporting it in Hanoi. Michael, thanks very much.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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