BANGKOK -- Indonesia became the seventh country in Asia to confirm an outbreak of deadly bird flu, as the World Health Organization warned yesterday the virus could be resistant to basic human influenza drugs.
The disease has affected millions of chickens in Indonesia, said Sofjan Sudardjat, a senior agriculture official. But the virus has not yet crossed over to humans, he said.
Indonesian officials had earlier denied the disease's presence, but the Indonesian Veterinarians Association said several independent investigations had revealed that bird flu had killed millions of chickens over the past several months.
A regionwide health alert is in effect in Asia, as governments have killed millions of chickens to contain outbreaks in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. Vietnam has slaughtered more than 3 million chickens, while Thailand has exterminated 9 million. The Thai government enlisted hundreds of soldiers and 60 prisoners yesterday to help with the effort.
Scientists believe people get the disease through contact with sick birds. This raises concerns the illness might mutate and link with regular influenza to create a form that could be transmitted from person to person, fostering the next human flu pandemic.
Concerns are particularly high, because the bird flu virus caught by humans appears resistant to amantadine and rimantadine, the cheaper antiviral drugs used to treat regular influenza.
"This is a disease that's appearing in the developing world. So what you want is affordable drugs," said WHO spokesman Dick Thompson. "Should this move from human to human -- and it hasn't yet, I want to stress that -- then it's going to be a real challenge."
So far, there has been no evidence of person-to-person transmission. Farms across Asia have been devastated, but Vietnam and Thailand are the only countries this year where humans have caught the avian flu. There have been six confirmed deaths in Vietnam, and today, officials confirmed the first fatality in Thailand.
According to WHO, the virus is resistant to key anti-influenza drugs, and an effective vaccine is probably more than six months away.
But "that's too late for the influenza season in Asia," said Peter Cordingley, a regional spokesman for WHO.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand, faced with accusations that he covered up the outbreak, said his government had suspected that bird flu had struck his nation a "couple of weeks" ago. But he said he didn't tell the public because he feared mass panic.
The outbreak has devastated Thailand's chicken export industry, the world's fourth largest. Thailand shipped about 500,000 tons of chicken worth $1.3 billion in 2003.
Many countries have imposed bans on poultry products from Thailand, and the prime minister said Saturday that, as a result, overall exports could drop by as much as 0.4 percent and the gross domestic product could slip by as much as 0.1 percent.
Thaksin met yesterday with hundreds of worried chicken farmers, some of whom alleged his government tried to cover up the outbreak to protect poultry exports. Until Friday, officials had insisted that millions of birds were sick with other diseases.
But Thaksin acknowledged yesterday that officials suspected a bird flu outbreak for weeks, and said he failed to inform the public of the government's concerns because tests for the virus had not been completed.
On Wednesday, Thailand is to be the host for a meeting of foreign, agriculture, and health ministers from bird flu-affected countries and international influenza specialists to devise strategies they might use to thwart the spread of the disease.