BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) – Thailand's prime minister said Saturday the bird flu epidemic could hurt the country's giant chicken export sector, as the virus claimed another life in Vietnam, bringing Asia's death toll to seven.
Thai officials, following weeks of denial, acknowledged the virus' presence after poultry farmers claimed not enough was being done to stop the disease from spreading from nearby countries.
Vietnam and Thailand are the only countries this year where avian flu has been passed onto humans. But the virus has hit millions of chickens, raising fears it might mutate, link with regular influenza and foster the next human flu pandemic.
Asia is on a region-wide health alert, with governments slaughtering millions of chickens to contain outbreaks in six countries: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
One of the cases — a 13-year-old-boy — died Jan. 22, while the virus has also sickened an 8-year-old girl, who is in a critical condition. Five others died earlier in Vietnam while a 56-year-old Thai man believed to have avian flu died Friday.
In a weekly radio address, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (search) acknowledged Saturday that the onset of the virus in Thailand could devastate the country's chicken export sector — the world's fourth largest.
Thailand shipped about 500,000 tons of chicken worth $1.3 billion in 2003. But on Friday the European Union and Japan — Thailand's biggest markets for poultry — announced bans along with a host of countries over fears about the virus spreading.
Thaksin said overall exports could drop by up to 0.4 percent and gross domestic product could slip by as much as 0.1 percent.
"If they are going to stop buying, we have to be deal with it," he said. "This is the worst-case scenario. Whatever we lose, we have to lose."
Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said the government will "send teams to talk to customers abroad to help build confidence" and ask Japan to reduce its 90-day ban on Thailand's poultry.
"If we can control this in one month, we think the bird flu losses will be less than 10 billion baht (US$256 million)," he told reporters.
Humans infected with the disease are thought to have caught the disease from fowl. The WHO, however, fears bird flu is highly adaptable and might leap the species barrier. It says anyone exposed to the disease should be quarantined to avoid contact with sufferers of regular human influenza.
"The Thai authorities ... understand," said Dr. Somchai Peerapakorn, the WHO's acting representative in Thailand. "But for family contact they have no quarantine. Only at hospitals they are isolating cases as much as they can."
Bird flu has swept through Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Thailand where two boys, aged six and seven, are seriously sick and two others were thought to have been exposed.
A massive slaughter of chickens is underway to stop the spread of the virus. But the operation has its own risks. The WHO has warned that workers involved in culling can be exposed.
Vietnam on Saturday reported the disease has been detected in 24 of its 64 provinces, with more than 3 million chickens dead or slaughtered to contain the flu's spread. More than 7 million chickens have been killed in Thailand since November.