JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesia (search) announced plans Wednesday for a mass chicken slaughter amid fears of a bird flu epidemic after two more children suspected of having the disease died in the capital.
The government scrambled to calm public fears after the deaths of the two girls, ages 2 and 5. If bird flu is confirmed as their cause of death, the country's human toll from the outbreak would climb to six since July. Nine others suspected of having the virus were being treated Wednesday at Jakarta's infectious diseases hospital.
Forty-four state-owned hospitalshave been assigned to treat avian influenza patients and the government has 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 (search) Supari told The Associated Press.
The H5N1 (search) 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 human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds. But the World Health Organization (search) has warned the virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among humans — possibly triggering a global pandemic that could kill millions.
A top WHO official said Wednesday the agency was prepared to begin distributing large-scale quantities of an antiviral drug to treat bird flu in humans "if and when a pandemic starts."
Dr. Shigeru Omi, director for WHO's Western Pacific region, told reporters at a WHO conference in New Caledonia that the U.N. agency was ready to open its stockpile of oseltamivir, an antiviral drug, to help avert a global pandemic of the disease. WHO regards a pandemic as a multi-country outbreak of bird flu, in which the disease has been passed from human to human.
Indonesia has reported scores of infections in chicken flocks across the sprawling country, but in the past has said it could not afford mass slaughters — 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."