On Front Lines Of Asian Battle Against Bird Flu

A man takes away live ducks from a Hanoi market this month. Vietnamese scientists are working on a human vaccine against the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu.
A man takes away live ducks from a Hanoi market this month. Vietnamese scientists are working on a human vaccine against the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu. (By Nick Ut -- Associated Press)

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By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 22, 2005

HANOI -- Behind high gray double doors, Professor Nguyen Thu Van, a simply dressed woman with black hair held back by a barrette, has been laboring tirelessly with her team of researchers in a race to avert a pandemic.

Her white-coated co-workers scurried about one recent day in their small, second-floor laboratory in an elegant French colonial building in the Vietnamese capital. Engaged in a drive to perfect a human vaccine against avian influenza, Van, 50, has produced an experimental version and conducted successful tests on monkeys. She and her researchers have volunteered to be the first subjects in human trials, which she hopes will begin this summer despite warnings from the World Health Organization.

Van is at the forefront of a campaign in Southeast Asia to halt the progress of bird flu. International health specialists say they fear the virus could undergo genetic changes suddenly and become the most deadly disease to strike humanity in modern times. Almost 200 million chickens, ducks and other birds throughout Southeast Asia have died from the virus or been slaughtered to contain it in the last two years.

So far, bird flu has killed 53 people, mostly as a result of close contact with infected poultry. But international health experts say they suspect the virus has also begun to spread among humans.

With bird flu endemic among birds in the Asian countryside, the disease could pose a threat to humans for years. And in an age of global travel, health experts predict that an easily transmitted human strain could move beyond Asia in a matter of weeks and infect tens of millions of people worldwide.

When bird flu began spreading in Southeast Asia, governments in the region initially denied its presence. But a Thai doctor, Prasert Thongcharoen, sounded the alarm, issuing blunt declarations that forced Thailand to acknowledge early last year that the disease was decimating bird populations and beginning to infect people.

In Indonesia, the government has campaigned to vaccinate poultry across the vast archipelago, but tens of thousands of doses sit unused in government refrigerators while farmers leave their birds unprotected. A veterinarian named Suparno patrols the country's most populous island in an ambitious endeavor to prevent the virus from spreading.

Van's eyes gleamed with enthusiasm as she predicted that Vietnam could become the first country to develop a human vaccine against the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu endemic among poultry in Southeast Asia. But WHO officials charge that Van's team has flouted international guidelines, saying that material used to develop the vaccine is potentially contaminated and that the planned human tests involve imprudent shortcuts.

"We cannot wait," Van responded.

A Warning in Thailand

Prasert, 71, one of his country's most eminent virologists, literally wrote the book on influenza in Thailand, published seven years ago.

He was a physician fresh out of school when the 1957 Asian influenza pandemic swept through Thailand, flooding his hospital with patients. Later, when an outbreak of Hong Kong flu reached Bangkok in 1968, Prasert was already emerging as a leading researcher.

In the fall of 2003, he learned that tens of thousands of chickens had begun dying in Thailand, he said during an interview in his research office in Bangkok. The government was insisting that the birds had contracted fowl cholera, a common affliction. As the world's fourth-largest poultry exporter, Thailand would suffer an economic blow if other countries learned its flocks were infected with bird flu.


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