Vietnam bans Chinese poultry as new deadly bird-flu virus strain reaches border

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A chicken is vaccinated against the H5N1 bird-flu virus at a farm in Kon Tum Province in Vietnam's Central Highlands. Photo by Pham Anh

Vietnam has banned import of poultry over the border with China after the FAO and WHO sounded a warning following a meeting Thursday that the new and virulent H7N9 bird flu strain could enter the country from China at any time.

Pham Van Dong, head of the Animal Health Department at the agriculture ministry, said at the meeting held by the ministry that the virus has infected fowls and people in Guangxi, the Chinese autonomous region that shares a border with four Vietnamese provinces.

The virus was first detected in China in March last year and has since killed 73 out of 330 people who contracted it, including 130 this year, in Beijing, Shanghai, and many provinces as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where patients brought the disease back from mainland China.

Officials from the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization said at the meeting that Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar face high risk.

A FAO official said communications programs are very important, especially in some vulnerable areas where poultry markets are concentrated.

The official said any hygiene or disinfection program needs to suit the conditions in a place, and when the virus is first detected, Vietnam has to work hard not only to get rid of it but also to find out how it got there.

Vietnam needs to have some long-term plans since there are more virus strains that are threatening the region. H10N8, a strain commonly found in poultry, was first discovered in humans in China last December and has killed at least two, while H9N2 was also detected in Chinese people in January.

Dong said H7N9 has not been reported in Vietnam and the ban on Chinese poultry is the best way to keep it out.

Local authorities and animal health agencies have been ordered to beef up surveillance, taking samples regularly for testing from poultry markets in the northern region.

Minister of Health Cao Duc Phat said a 25 percent fatality rate shows that the virus is very dangerous.

Dealing with it would be harder than with H5N1, the strain that has been ravaging Vietnam since 2003 and killed three persons this year, he said, since unlike H5N1 the new virus does not show symptoms when it infects fowls or kills them.

There is no vaccine yet against it.

Animal health authorities have meanwhile been providing H5N1 vaccines to poultry farmers.

Nguyen Ngoc Son, a farmer with 2,000 chickens in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum, said vaccination will prevent the birds from laying eggs or cause them to lay fewer, but it is not worth taking the risk.

“My entire fortune is in the chickens. If they get H5N1, we are done for,” he said.

H5N1 claimed a third life in Vietnam this year when Huynh Thanh Tuan, 30, of Nha Trang died Thursday.

The ministry in January reported two other human deaths from the disease – a 52-year-old man from Binh Phuoc Province and a 60-year-old woman from Dong Thap Province, both in the south.

The disease has claimed 65 lives so far in Vietnam, one of the highest fatality rates in the world, according to the WHO.

There have been 649 human infections since it re-emerged in 2003, with 385 of them dying.

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