JAKARTA, Indonesia – A bird flu outbreak that has killed at least four people in Indonesia (search) could quickly turn into an epidemic, the health minister warned, as another two children with symptoms of the disease died Wednesday.
The government scrambled to calm public fears after the deaths of the two girls, ages 5 and 2.
If lab tests confirm they died from bird flu, it would raise the disease's toll here since July to six. Nine others suspected of having the virus were being treated Wednesday at Jakarta's infectious diseases hospital.
Agriculture officials announced plans for mass culls of chickens in infected areas.
"At the moment the outbreaks are sporadic, but if things worsen it could become an epidemic," Health Minister Siti Fadila Supari (search) told The Associated Press.
Dr. Shigeru Omi (search), the World Health Organization director for the Western Pacific region, said Wednesday the U.N. agency is prepared to begin distributing large-scale quantities of the antiviral drug oseltamivir, known commercially as Tamiflu, to help avert a global pandemic of bird flu in humans.
Asked if WHO was prepared to send Tamiflu to Indonesia, Omi replied: "If and when a pandemic starts, we can send this [drug]."
The organization regards a pandemic as a multi-country outbreak of bird flu, in which the disease has been passed from human to human.
Earlier, the Indonesian Health Minister Supari said the outbreak could already be classified as an epidemic. She later called news organizations to retract her comments, saying there was a "miscommunication."
The H5N1 strain of bird flu 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 of the human deaths have been in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. Health officials in parts of Russia and Kazakhstan are also monitoring its spread.
Most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds. But WHO has warned that the virus could mutate into a form that can easily spread 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 to carry out 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," Minister of Agriculture Anton Apriyantono said.
He said the government would classify "highly infected" areas as farms in which 20 percent of poultry are infected with H5N1.
Tri Satya Putri Naipospos, the Agriculture Ministry's director of animal health, told Dow Jones Newswires she had been dismissed for allegedly failing to control Indonesia's outbreak of avian influenza.
On Tuesday, the government issued a 21-day state of high alert against the disease, assigning 44 state-owned hospitals to treat avian influenza patients and make sure all receive free medication.
The extra measures also mean that patients with symptoms of the disease — including high fever, coughing and breathing difficulties — could be forcibly admitted to hospitals.
In Indonesia, where coverage of the outbreak is dominating local media, chicken vendors have reportedly suffered a sharp drop in sales.
"My takings have been down a bit," said Suzi, a chicken noodle vendor in central Jakarta who goes by a single name. "I tell people my birds come from the countryside, but it does not help much."