Indonesia must step up bird flu fight, top EU health official says

Indonesia has to intensify its fight against bird flu, the European Union's top health official said Wednesday, warning that promises of action must be followed up. EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said the government appears to have the political will to contain the disease that has recently spread from Asia, where it has killed 64 people, to Europe.

Now it has to come up with detailed plans, from ways to monitor hundreds of millions of backyard chickens, to guidelines for culling and vaccinations, and take steps to implement them. "It will not be an easy task," said Kyprianou, noting the high density of chickens and people in the sprawling archipelago.

"Indonesia will need foreign assistance ... But I have to say, we can help but we can't do it for them."

The virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu has in the last two years ravaged poultry stocks across Southeast Asia, where all of the human deaths have occurred, including at least five in Indonesia.

Most human victims have contracted the disease from sick birds, but experts fear the virus will mutate into a form that is easily transmitted between people, sparking a possible pandemic that could kill millions worldwide.

Indonesia was criticized for moving too slowly when bird flu first appeared in poultry stocks in 2003, but has promised in recent days to step up the fight.

Even the military was getting involved, with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono saying thousands of troops would join students and volunteers in going door-to-door in search of sick birds.

Still, the government has refused to slaughter all poultry in bird-flu infected areas, which experts claim is the best way to contain the virus' spread, opting instead for mass vaccinations of chickens. Indonesia says it cannot afford to compensate farmers.

Kyprianou said he understood the government's dilemma, but cautioned vaccination alone "is not a long-term solution."

A combination of culling and vaccinations is recommended. The virus has recently infected birds in Europe, putting that continent on edge as well.

Kyprianou said the international community saw the importance of helping stamp out the disease in developing countries, reports the AP. I.L.