Human bird flu death brought toll to 4 in Indonesia

An Indonesian man died of bird flu, raising the country's human toll to four, officials said Tuesday, as international health experts prepared to go house-to-house to search for infected poultry.

The government, accused of covering-up outbreaks of bird flu when it first started killing chickens two years ago, said it would work closely with the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization to hunt down sick fowl on the densely populated island of Java.

All of Indonesia's human bird flu deaths came from Java, including the latest victim, a 23-year-old man from Bogor who was hospitalized in late September and died two days later, said Hariadi Wibisono, a Health Ministry official.

A Hong Kong lab confirmed Monday that the man had the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, and that a 4-year-old boy from neighboring Sumatra island was sickened by the virus earlier this month, he said. The child has since fully recovered and returned home.

Bird flu has swept through poultry populations in many parts of Asia since 2003, jumping to humans and killing more than 60 people and resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of chickens.

Though most human cases have been linked to contact with sick birds, experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that is easily transmitted between humans, possibly causing a pandemic that could kill millions.

Indonesia's health ministry said that its two latest cases were believed to have had contact with infected poultry.

Chickens started dropping dead at commercial poultry farms in Indonesia just over two years ago, but the government insisted for months that the birds had Newcastle disease, an ailment not dangerous to humans.

The government denied allegations from local officials that the powerful poultry industry had convinced it to cover up the disease. The Ministry of Agriculture has complained repeatedly about a lack of funds to carry out U.N.-recommended mass culls of birds in infected areas.

On Monday, the FAO offered to help the country fight bird flu at the source: poultry.

The U.N. agency said it planned to assemble an emergency team of experts to help define infected areas and go house-to-house to search for sick birds.

Joseph Domenech, FAO's chief veterinary officer, said the agency would then decide with Indonesian authorities on control measures such as slaughtering, vaccination and biosecurity, reports the AP. I.L.

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