Cambodia battles H5N1 outbreak; 8 victims so far

Bird flu has killed eight people, including six children, so far this year in Cambodia, while more than 13,000 chickens have been culled or died from the highly contagious illness.

The impoverished kingdom is also nervously watching the spread of a new H7N9 strain in China.

This strain had not previously been transmitted from birds to humans, but it has killed seven people since February.

"We're monitoring it ," said Mr Sok Touch, head of Cambodia's health ministry's disease surveillance bureau.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that H5N1 carries a mortality rate among humans of around 60 per cent. The virus has killed more than 360 people globally since 2003.

The current outbreak is Cambodia's worst ever and is responsible for nearly a third of its 27 human deaths from H5N1 since 2005.

The outbreak follows a spate of deaths in China and in South-east Asia that sparked international concern.

No scientific explanation has been found to explain the sharp rise in human victims this year. In 2012, the virus claimed three victims.

Experts agree the country is particularly vulnerable because of the close proximity between humans and chickens, most of which roam freely in backyards, and a high rate of transportation of birds.

The country has about 20 million poultry, with around 16 million kept in rural gardens.

The government is asking villagers to raise poultry in confined areas, but in many places, they are being ignored.

"People know about bird flu, but they don't want to throw the birds away because they're poor," said Ms Ouer Srey, 52, a villager in southern Kandal province who raises chickens in her backyard.

Officials are scrambling to prevent new cases in the run-up to the Khmer New Year in mid-April when Cambodians travel home to the countryside and ducks and chickens are transported across the country for holiday feasts.

"We're on alert," said WHO spokesman Sonny Krishnan.

"By the time these patients reach hospital, it is too late," Krishnan said.

H5N1 causes a highly infectious, severe respiratory disease in birds. Humans can also be infected, typically through direct contact with sick poultry.

Some health officials have expressed concern about the lack of vaccination of poultry, a move that has been successfully implemented in several other countries in the region, including Vietnam.

But Allal said vaccinating the millions of chickens kept in people's backyards is "not realistic".

Instead animal health teams are carrying out enhanced surveillance, public awareness campaigns and training of local health workers.

While the WHO says that it is difficult to transmit the infection from person to person, the fear is that it might mutate into a form easily transmissible between humans.The World Bank warns that a severe flu pandemic could cost more than US$3 trillion (S$3.7 trillion) worldwide or 4.8 per cent of global GDP.

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