BANGKOK, Thailand – The government confirmed Friday that two boys and an undetermined number of chickens have contracted the bird flu virus — making Thailand the latest flashpoint for an infection that has spread through large parts of Asia.
Thai officials, who had denied for several days that the virus was present in the country, said the infected boys were at separate hospitals in different provinces of central Thailand.
The country's agriculture minister also confirmed that chickens in one province tested positive for the disease.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (search) said that lab results would likely confirm suspicions of a bird flu outbreak, but urged the public not to panic.
"It's not a big deal," Thaksin told reporters. "If it's bird flu, it's bird flu. We can handle it."
The World Health Organization (search) said it would send two influenza experts to Thailand to help cope with the outbreak. Thailand is among the world's top five poultry exporters.
Bird flu has killed five people in Vietnam and infected millions of chickens in South Korea, Japan and in Vietnam. Together with the re-emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome, Asia is on a region-wide health alert.
A WHO team and six scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (search) are in Hanoi hoping to track down exactly how the H5N1 virus has jumped from poultry to people.
Scientists believe people get the disease through contact with sick birds. So far, there has been no evidence of person-to-person transmission.
WHO officials have expressed concern that the avian virus could mutate to allow human transmission, which could make the disease a bigger health crisis than SARS. That disease, also a virus, killed nearly 800 people worldwide last year.
Farmers in Thailand had said for more than a week that millions of chickens were dying of bird flu and that the government was engaged in a massive cover-up to protect chicken exports. But officials maintained until Friday that the chickens were suffering from fowl cholera — which they said posed no danger to people.
Shares in major Thai chicken producers plunged Friday, a day after Japan suspended all imports of Thai chicken meat. The 15-nation European Union also banned imports of Thai poultry.
Public Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphun said the two infected boys lived near poultry farms where chickens had died, and allegedly touched the carcasses of dead birds.
Tests on a third person suspected of being infected with the virus in central Nakhon Sawan province had turned out negative, she said. Two others with suspected cases were under surveillance.
Officials collected and tested samples from more than 100,000 chickens nationwide.
A senator raised alarms about bird flu in Thailand on Thursday, claiming that a seriously ill boy was confirmed as its first human case. The prime minister said at the time that it would be days before lab tests could show whether the child was infected.
For days, Thaksin's government had dismissed claims by farmers that bird flu had infiltrated Thailand, though millions of chickens have died or were killed to prevent the spread of disease in recent weeks. The health minister denied any cover-up.
Politicians outside the government urged it to be forthcoming, saying Thailand should not follow the example of China, which disastrously tried to hide details about SARS, leading to a global health crisis last year.
Worried by the confusion, Japan — a major market — announced an immediate ban on Thai chicken imports on Thursday. Hong Kong and Bangladesh also banned imports of Thai poultry.