Experts in Asia are predicting that the bird flu outbreak is threatening to evolve into a situation similar to that of the recent SARS outbreak, as the disease appears to show no signs of abating. Meanwhile in Europe strict measures are still in force to keep it out.
The World Health Organisation reports that the outbreak is currently affecting nine Asian countries, with Thailand and Vietnam the worst affected mainly because the infection has been spread to human carriers. So far 15 people have been killed in Vietnam and seven in Thailand.
"The present situation in Asia is historically unprecedented and extremely challenging," said a WHO spokesperson. "Many affected countries are reporting highly pathogenic H5N1 infection in birds for the first time in their histories. In some of these countries, around 80 per cent of the poultry are produced in small backyard farms scattered throughout rural areas, further complicating control."
Fighting the spread of the disease has been top of the agenda for many of the countries affected and the culling of tens of millions of birds has, it seems, done much to prevent the spread amongst poultry producers. However, as WHO indicates, many people in the poorer regions have small holdings containing poultry. In these cases, people are often unaware of the ravaging affects of bird flu and are not will to reciprocate in programmes to cull their livestock.
"We are in an emergency, urgency mode," Bjorn Melgaard, the WHO representative in Thailand, told regional health experts in Bangkok. "The bird epidemic is unfolding and continuing to spread at an unprecedented rate."
In his briefing he went on to remind experts of that they were confronting a global epidemic and that efforts should not be relaxed until clear signs of complete irradication are in sight.
However, optimism is riding high in Thailand and Vietnam, where authorities have said that they are hoping to have eradicated the disease in the next few weeks.
Of all the countries with the most at stake, it is undoubtedly Thailand, which until the outbreak of the disease, had a thriving poultry export business estimated to be valued at $1 billion a year. The industry serves fast food companies and food processors across the globe, and has a particularly high level of trade with the UK, US and Japanese markets.
Currently the EU has enforced a six month ban on the import of all southeast Asian poultry. Although the respective authorities concede that the import of poultry carcasses from affected regions carries a minimum risk of spreading the disease, the ban will remain in force until categorical proof that the disease has been eradicated.