Indonesia's health minister warned Wednesday that the country could face a bird flu epidemic if the number of suspected cases of the virus continued to mount.
Two young girls with symptoms consistent with bird flu died Wednesday in Jakarta, the Health Ministry said. The ministry has confirmed four previous deaths from avian influenza, most recently a 37-year-old Jakarta woman who died two weeks ago. Since then, at least 10 other people have been admitted to hospitals with high fevers and breathing difficulties symptomatic of bird flu, including the two girls who died, ages 2 and 5. Indonesian health officials said they remained unsure whether the children had bird flu and were awaiting further test results from a specialized laboratory in Hong Kong.
On Monday, the government announced what it called extraordinary measures to stem the spread of the virus, including the mandatory hospitalization of anyone with suspicious symptoms.
Although bird flu showed up in Indonesian poultry more than two years ago and then spread across the majority of the country's provinces, Health Ministry officials had minimized the threat, saying the virus was not infecting humans as it had elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
But after a 38-year-old auditor and two of his daughters died of the disease in a wealthy Jakarta suburb two months ago, the ministry and officials from the World Health Organization increased efforts to control its spread. In an expression of growing concern, a front-page headline in Wednesday's Jakarta Post asked: "Bird flu outbreak: Is it time to panic?"
Even as Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari urged calm, there was a sense of confusion and anxiety. The minister initially told journalists Wednesday that the virus was already epidemic in Indonesia, but she later called reporters to say she had misspoken, saying that she believed only that the disease could become epidemic.
Since early last year, bird flu has killed at least 63 people in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia and infected an increasing number of bird species in 12 countries across the breadth of Asia.
U.N. health experts warn that the virus could either mutate or obtain new genetic material, allowing it to spread more easily among humans, which could spark a global pandemic and kill tens of millions of people. So far, only a few victims of bird flu are thought to have contracted the disease from other people, in nearly all cases other family members.
In Indonesia, Jakarta's governor shuttered the country's largest zoo Monday after 19 birds tested positive for avian flu. He said the zoo would remain closed for at least three weeks while the facilities were sterilized. But prospects for a quick reopening dimmed when officials reported Tuesday that a zoo vendor and a guide may have come down with the illness and had been admitted to the capital's leading infectious disease hospital. Test results are expected this week.
On Tuesday, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono summoned his top health and agriculture advisers to discuss steps for containing the outbreak. Officials said the government would import enough of the antiviral drug oseltamivir to treat 1,000 people and would provide free medical care for those believed to be infected.