Indonesia trails neighbors in attempts to stamp out bird flu

Indonesia is lagging far behind its Southeast Asian neighbors in efforts to stamp out the spread of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, a senior official at the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization said.

With 25 confirmed human deaths, Indonesia last year overtook Thailand to tally the second highest number of fatal cases in the world after Vietnam.

The virus is endemic in poultry populations in 27 of 33 provinces across the vast archipelago, including easternmost Papua, and the government has come under fire for refusing to carry out mass culls in infected areas.

Lawrence Gleeson, a regional manager for the FAO's Emergency Center for Trans-Boundary Disease Control, urged Indonesia on Monday to pick up the pace.

Vietnam and Thailand have seen sharp decreases in the circulation of the H5N1 virus in poultry populations in recent months, thanks to aggressive government campaigns to combat the virus. The number of human cases also has come to a near standstill.

But "Indonesia hasn't yet effectively stemmed the spread of the illness," Gleeson said Monday, calling on the government to, at the very least, increase public awareness of the risks of the disease.

Indonesian health authorities, meanwhile, are still probing an unusually large cluster of eight family members on Northern Sumatra who, according to preliminary tests, were infected with the virus. Five of them died.

Confirmation within the past two weeks that the H5N1 virus has also spread to poultry in the far-flung eastern province of Papua was particularly worrying, said Gleeson, who was in Jakarta for the 28th FAO regional conference for Asia and the Pacific, reports the AP.