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New Bird-Flu Fears Surface

Azerbaijan had an outbreak in poultry in 2006. (RFE/RL) January 29, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Bird flu is back. In recent weeks, there have been reported cases in South Korea, Japan, and Indonesia.  Now a 14-year-old Azerbaijani boy, who was treated for suspected bird flu, has died in the capital, Baku.

It's still unclear what exactly killed 14-year-old Ajdar Askarov. The Azerbaijani authorities have said the cause of death was acute pneumonia.

"The results were negative," said Anar Qadirly, the head of the press office at the Azerbaijani Health Ministry. "Samples have been taken from the patient and are being prepared to be sent to World Health Organization laboratories. In the village and surrounding areas, we haven't observed any outbreaks or mass deaths among wild and domestic birds."

"It will be very helpful when local people stop eating wild birds and start following basic rules of personal hygiene." -- Ibrahim Cafarov, head doctor at Salyan region's central hospital.

Ajdar Askarov was from the Salyan region in southeastern Azerbaijan, where five people died of bird flu last year. Two of them were Askarov's relatives.

Asia Warned To Be On Alert

The case in Azerbaijan is one of a number of suspected bird-flu cases to surface recently -- most of which have occurred in birds, rather than humans.

On January 23, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned Asian countries to be on the alert for new bird-flu outbreaks.

FAO officials said that although the number of overall bird-flu outbreaks has dropped since 2004, there have been new cases in China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Today, the European Commission confirmed the presence of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu among geese in Hungary, in the first case of the disease in the EU since last summer.

Russia has already banned poultry imports from Hungary.

Also today, a health official in Japan's western prefecture of Okayama confirmed its third recent outbreak of avian flu. Forty chickens have died on an Okayama farm in the past few days.

What health officials are especially worried about is H5N1, the virulent strain of the virus that has killed more than 160 people worldwide since it appeared in Asia in late 2003.

Experts fear that H5N1 could mutate and become transmissible from human to human.

Hygiene 'Paramount'

Much of the challenge in preventing further human cases is in educating local populations about hygiene and safe human-bird interaction.

In Azerbaijan, the head doctor of the central hospital in the Salyan region, Ibrahim Cafarov, said one of the major problems is that restaurants in the region are still serving wild birds:

"We should do more preventative work," Cafarov said. "The press should help with this. It will be very helpful when local people stop eating wild birds and start following basic rules of personal hygiene. Our goal is to get this in the media. Our main concern is that people are still serving wild birds in restaurants."

However, the preventative work can only go so far. If the cases continue to surface, there are likely to be mass culls and poultry bans similar to those seen in recent years across Asia.

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