Vietnam says avian flu is vanquished

Mar 30, 2004 (CIDRAP News) – Following through on plans announced yesterday, Vietnamese authorities today said the nation has defeated avian flu and that poultry operations can return to normal.

The declaration came 3 months after the disease surfaced in late December and a little more than a month after the last reported outbreak on Feb 26. Officials claimed victory over the disease despite repeated warnings from international health officials not to restock poultry farms without thoroughly investigating whether the virus is still present.

The announcement was made today by Le Huy Ngo, Vietnam's minister of agriculture and rural development, according to a report by the Vietnam News Agency, the government news service. He said all poultry raising, transportation, and processing could return to normal.

Le called the end of the avian flu crisis a big success for Vietnam but said the country "will not neglect the preventive work in the future, considering it a big task to protect the country from the relapse of the epidemic," the report stated.

Vietnam has had 23 human cases of H5N1 avian influenza with 16 deaths. The most recent death was that of a 12-year-old boy on Mar 15. The government was slow to acknowledge that the boy's death was due to avian flu, according to news service reports.

The Associated Press reported that Nguyen Van Binh, a Health Ministry official, acknowledged today that the boy died of H5N1 flu but said authorities were unable to determine how he became infected. His case could not be linked to poultry, Nguyen said.

The Vietnam News Agency said the country lost 43.2 million birds to avian flu and the control efforts, costing an estimated $83 million. The crisis also raised food prices and caused environmental pollution, especially in areas where huge numbers of birds were destroyed, the agency said.

Anton Rychener, a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official in Hanoi, said Vietnamese authorities did not consult the FAO about their decision to claim victory over the disease and warned that it could backfire, according to the AP report. Scientists know the virus can live a long time, and the FAO does not believe the disease has been eradicated, Rychener was quoted as saying.

But the agriculture minister, according to the AP report, said the announcement followed guidelines in Vietnamese law and should not be seen as a sign of reduced vigilance. "We have not made a hasty announcement," he was quoted as saying.

The government had made eradicating avian flu a top priority after Prime Minister Phan Van Khai set a deadline for achieving that goal by the end of February, according to the AP report.

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