Disease experts in Southeast Asia will map out key poultry smuggling routes, especially along Cambodia's long border with Thailand and Vietnam, in a move to prevent the spread of the H5N1 bird flu virus in the region.
Researchers from China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam met in the Chinese city of Kunming to discuss ways to control the spread of the virus, which kills 60 percent of the people it infects.
Even though H5N1 transmission between people is weak, experts say it continues to pose a risk especially if it gets mixed with the now dominant H1N1 swine flu virus. Such a hybrid may then be both deadly and easily transmissible among people.
"In Cambodia, illegal or informal trade occurs along its long border with Thailand and Vietnam. There is that informal trade, not just in birds, but eggs and other poultry products, smuggling," said Khieu Borin, director of Cambodia's Center for Livestock and Agriculture Department.
"It can be in small or large numbers ... but because poultry has (can be infected by) H5N1, so smuggling of fighting cocks or chickens can carry H5N1, there will be some risk," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
While scarce media attention has been paid in the last year to H5N1, there have been outbreaks of the disease in birds and it has killed people in China, Egypt, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Experts also discussed the role of wild migratory birds in the spread of the H5N1.
"Our China colleagues found that bar-headed geese fly from China to India and found records of outbreaks in poultry along the flyway. This suggests the role of these birds in spreading the virus along the flyway," said Witthawat Wiriyarat, a veterinarian and virologist with Thailand's Mahidol University.
"There are opportunities to meet other birds along the pathway like in paddy fields and wetlands. If one bird can release the virus into the environment, other animals can get it and spread it to poultry," Wiriyarat told Reuters.
One worry often cited by experts is Indonesia's insistence on not sharing virus samples. Researchers need to study the virus to track its molecular changes, which can influence its behavior.
Friday, Indonesia's health minister Endang Sedyaningsih said the country will continue to hold back samples until it secured guarantees from richer nations and drugmakers that poor countries get access to affordable vaccines derived from their samples.
"We will still insist that the responsibility to share virus should be at the same line with receiving the benefit from that," she told foreign journalists in Jakarta.