Bird flu vaccine ban to get rethink

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avian flu virusBANGKOK - Vaccination of fowl against bird flu has been tabled for consideration again as part of the government's bird flu control policies amid warnings by experts about the country's lack of readiness to handle such a programme.

Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Thira Sutabutra said yesterday the ministry would reconsider the pros and cons of using the vaccine in fowl as one of the counter-measures against bird flu at a meeting next week to be joined by experts from both state and private agencies.

If vaccine use proves beneficial and effective, the meeting's conclusions will then be forwarded to the government for a change in policy, he said.

''The matter has been debated in society for some time and it should be time to settle it now,'' said Mr Thira.

''It's a fact that the virus has become endemic here, meaning it cannot be stopped unless vaccination is applied, theoretically.

''Our virus control measures now are at the same time costly and inconsistent. So the key condition we have to find out is whether we have an effective vaccine or not. And if so, we must use it,'' he said.

Vaccination of fowl has been fiercely debated in the country as poultry raisers and experts are divided over the issue.

Traditional fowl raisers, including those who raise free range ducks, want to use the vaccine, claiming this will help prevent their poultry from dying of avian flu.

But several virologists from leading academic institutions said the vaccine would speed up virus mutations to the point that a pandemic could be triggered.

In September 2004, a government-appointed academic committee concluded that vaccination usage had limitations, including the country's ability to control vaccine use.

The centre of concern here was that once the vaccine was used on fowl, those animals would not show any bird flu symptoms, making it difficult to detect outbreaks. It led to the decision by the previous government to ban vaccine use.

A bird flu control expert at the Livestock Development Department, the main agency controlling the disease, disagreed with the ministry's move to consider allowing the use of the vaccine.

He was concerned about the lack of effective monitoring and control systems for use of the vaccine by authorities and a lack of discipline among fowl raisers.

The official said the two million backyard fowl raisers were too numerous to be controlled effectively by the authorities and also not ready to handle the monitoring and control procedures when using the vaccine.

Under proper procedures, they would vaccinate most of their fowl, but leave some unvaccinated as markers for possible virus infections, the official said.

''Vaccination is not only about the effectiveness of vaccine, but also about discipline among ourselves,'' he said.

Yukol Limlamthong, acting department chief, a supporter of the ban, said he preferred to discuss the matter at the meeting. But he cautioned that any vaccination programme should have strict monitoring and controls.

The government on Tuesday agreed to transfer him to be a ministry deputy permanent secretary. He will soon take up the new position.

Bird flu was first reported in Thailand in early 2004.

It resulted in the mass culling of over 60 million fowl and 17 human fatalities as of November this year.

source - Bangkok Post