Health Minister calls bird flu outbreak an epidemic, Indonesia

Indonesia declared a bird flu outbreak an epidemic on Wednesday, as agriculture officials announced plans for mass culls of chickens in infected areas.

Earlier Wednesday, a 5-year-old girl hospitalized with symptoms of bird flu died, possibly becoming the country's fifth human fatality. Results of lab tests are expected later this week.

"This could be called .... an epidemic," Health Minister Siti Fadila Supari said, noting that five other people suspected of having the virus have been admitted to Jakarta's infectious diseases hospital.

"It will likely claim more victims because the source is not clear," she said, without elaborating.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has swept through poultry populations in large swaths of Asia since 2003, killing at least 63 people and resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of birds.

Most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds. But the World Health Organization has warned that the virus could mutate into a form that can easily spread among humans, possibly triggering a global pandemic that could kill millions.

Indonesia has reported infections in chicken flocks across the sprawling country, but in the past has said it could not afford to carry out mass culls something the United Nations suggests is the best way to prevent the virus' spread.

On Wednesday, the government reversed course.

"If we declare one area highly infected, we are going to do a mass slaughter," Minister of Agriculture Anton Apriyantono told reporters.

He said the government would classify "highly infected" areas as farms in which 20 percent of poultry are infected with H5N1.

On Tuesday, the government issued a 21-day state of high alert against the disease, assigning 44 state-owned hospitals to treat avian influenza patients and make sure all receive free medication, reports the AP.

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