Vietnamese officials have ordered a nationwide ban on duck and goose farming in a bid to head off a mounting bird flu outbreak that has claimed 13 lives since late December.
The waterfowl are a main reservoir of the virus, carrying it without becoming ill. Without outward symptoms it is very difficult to identify infected animals. This week, Ho Chi Minh City, the nation's largest city, ordered all ducks destroyed or slaughtered for sale.
"These steps show an appreciation of the realities of the disease," said Klaus Stohr, head of the World Health Organization's global influenza program.
Vietnam requested help Thursday from the WHO and the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization to combat the outbreak that has spread to half of the nation's provinces. There are also outbreaks in Thailand and Cambodia.
Bird flu, formally known as avian influenza virus H5N1, raged through the region last winter, causing about 100 million birds to be culled in 10 nations. Since then the disease has killed 45 people.
After a period of relative remission, outbreaks have surged since December.
Vietnamese and U.N. officials agreed that a team of international experts would be assembled within two weeks. The U.N. agencies will provide field and lab equipment for improving surveillance and reporting. They also will conduct epidemiology studies and train lab personnel across the country in rapid detection of the virus. Sluggish testing and reporting previously have fostered the spread of the disease.
Concerns increased this week after the first confirmed bird flu fatality from Cambodia was reported by Vietnamese medical officials. The 25-year-old woman died in Vietnam on Sunday after crossing the border to seek care.
Her brother died a few days earlier after suffering bird flu symptoms.
In Vietnam this week, eight new suspected bird flu patients were hospitalized. So far this year, only one bird flu patient has fully recovered.
Health experts fear that as human infections increase, so will the likelihood that the lethal virus will mutate into a form that passes easily between people - a recipe for a major pandemic.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.