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Thai villagers eat dead chickens despite warnings

Written by: Staff

BANGKOK, July 7 (Reuters) Thailand will step up its bird flu awareness campaign after villagers ignored its advice and handled and ate chickens that died mysteriously, the country's heath minister said.

''It is obvious right now that we have a failure,'' Health Minister Phinij Jarusombat told reporters yesterday after a meeting of 200 government officials involved in fighting the virus.

Thailand, once among the countries worst-hit by the H5N1 virus, has not had a human death since December 2005 and no new outbreaks among poultry for 239 days.

But authorities fear H5N1 -- which has killed at least 131 people since late 2003, including 14 Thais -- could easily re-emerge if the public becomes complacent.

Those concerns intensified this week when a 7-year-old girl fell ill with flu-like symptoms after coming into contact with dead chickens.

The girl from a village in the province of Pichit, 340 km north of Bangkok, later tested negative for H5N1.

But others in the village handled and ate about 20 dead chickens and ducks. Authorities culled another 200 birds before lab tests confirmed the deaths were caused by cholera.

Phinij said the incident showed the difficulty of educating rural folk who are still afraid to tell authorities about suspicious bird deaths for fear their flocks will be culled or quarantined.

''It was extremely risky and we would face a serious problem if it was bird flu,'' he said of the Phichit villagers who ate the dead birds.

H5N1 re-emerged in Asia in 2003 and is now endemic in many parts of the region.

Health experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that jumps easily between people and start a global flu pandemic.

Reuters DH VP0440

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