WHO checks how Indonesian markets to battle bird flu

World Health Organization officials visited markets in Indonesia's teeming capital Wednesday to try to find ways to contain the bird flu virus that has killed at least 80 people, most of them in Asia. Peter Karim Ben Embarek, from WHO's headquarters in Geneva, said members of the team would brief the government next week about the need to improve hygiene at markets in order to reduce exposure of the virus to humans.

He also recommended improved crowd management and separating species of animals. "We want to make the life of (the) bird flu virus more difficult," said Alexander von Hildebrand, WHO's regional adviser, after the team toured a live bird market in east Jakarta that was packed with chickens, ducks, bats and doves.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed hundreds of millions of chickens and ducks since it started ravaging poultry stocks across Asia in 2003, also jumping to humans killing at least 80 people in Asia and in Turkey. Almost all the deaths have been linked to contact with infected poultry.

But experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among humans, possibly sparking a pandemic that could kill millions. Indonesia's caseload is steadily rising, with 14 human deaths tallied so far. Almost all the fatalities have been in or around the capital of nearly 12 million people.

Many markets in Jakarta are situated in the center of tightly congested areas, and the sale or slaughter of live birds is commonplace. Hildebrand noted many of the people who work on a daily basis with birds, healthy or sick, have not contracted the deadly H5N1 virus. Some experts speculate they may have developed immunity to the disease.

Only one of the dozen or so experts wore a protective mask at the markets. "So it is not like there is an imminent risk, but let's be preventive and proactive," Hildebrand said, stressing the importance of raising awareness about hygiene.

Sutarno, a vendor at the Pramuka bird market since 1969, said he was always in great shape.

"I got no bird flu (virus), and I can still do at least 30 push-ups every day," the 65-year-old said. He complained that sales had dropped by 80 percent since bird flu first made the headlines last year, reports the AP. N.U.