JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesia scrambled to calm public fears of a possible bird flu epidemic (search) on Wednesday after two more children suspected of having the disease died in the capital of Jakarta.
If bird flu is confirmed as their cause of death, the country's human toll from the outbreak would climb to six.
The government — accused of responding slowly to the outbreak — announced plans for mass chicken culls in infected areas and fired the country's chief of animal health control for allegedly failing to check the disease's spread.
It assigned 44 state-owned hospitals to treat avian influenza patients and threatened to forcefully admit anyone showing symptoms of the disease, which include coughing, high fever and respiratory problems.
"If things worsen it could become an epidemic," Health Minister Siti Fadila Supari told The Associated Press.
Nine suspected bird flu cases have been admitted to Jakarta's infectious disease hospital, and authorities are awaiting lab test results for them and the girls, ages 2 and 5, who died Wednesday.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu (search) has swept through poultry populations in large swaths of Asia since 2003, killing at least 63 people and resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of birds.
Most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds. But the World Health Organization (search) has warned that the virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among humans — possibly triggering a global pandemic that could kill millions.
Indonesia has reported scores of infections in chicken flocks across the sprawling country, but in the past has said it could not afford mass culls — something the United Nations suggests is the best way to prevent the virus' spread.
On Wednesday, the government reversed course.
"If we declare one area highly infected, we are going to do a mass slaughter," said Minister of Agriculture Anton Apriyantono, adding that farms in which 20 percent of poultry were infected with H5N1 would qualify.
The ministry's director of animal health, meanwhile, said she had been dismissed for allegedly failing to control Indonesia's outbreak.
"I was fired this morning," said Tri Satya Putri Naipospos, adding that her successor could be appointed as early as Friday.
With coverage of the outbreak dominating local media, chicken vendors have reportedly suffered a sharp sales drop. Streetside stalls selling chicken and duck are also hurting.
"My takings have been down a bit," said Suzi, a central Jakarta chicken noodle vendor who goes by one name. "I tell people my birds come from the countryside, but it does not help much."