30 Thai tigers die of bird flu, 30 more to be culled

BANGKOK, Thailand, October 21, 2004 (ENS): Disease control authorities Wednesday ordered that at least 30 tigers with symptoms of avian influenza at a private zoo will be killed to stop the disease from spreading. Tigers began to sicken with flu-like symptoms last week, and 30 have died since October 14.

At least 400 tigers are housed at Sriracha Tiger Zoo in Chon Buri province in the eastern part of the country.

The tigers to be culled will be injected with potassium chloride to end their lives, officials said. The carcasses will be incinerated at a high temperature or buried at least one meter underground.

Officials have separated the sick tigers from the healthy ones and sprayed disinfectants throughout the zoo, which will be closed indefinately.

Dr. Charal Trinwuthipong, director of the government’s bird flu center, said the tigers could only have picked up the disease from infected raw chicken meat, even though the virus was not found on samples taken from the zoo, or from freshly prepared samples.

The sick tigers were all fed chicken meat from the same processing company, said Trinwuthipong, who is acting permanent secretary of the Public Health Ministry and director-general of the Disease Control Department.

The 100 acre facility, which bills itself as the largest tiger zoo in the world, is a tourist attraction, but it has been closed since Tuesday to protect the public from the bird flu.

Tiger keepers and cage cleaners are in danger of becoming infected with the flu, officials said, because they were working at the zoo when the 30 tigers sickened and died.

In February 2004, scientists in Thailand confirmed the first cases of Asian bird flu in cats. The H5N1 strain of the virus is most often found in intensively farmed chickens, but affects other bird and animal species, including humans.

Since the beginning of this year, Thailand has reported 16 laboratory confirmed cases of H5N1 infection in humans, of which 11 have been fatal. Four of these cases have occurred during the past six weeks.

During the past 12 months this strain of bird flu has killed at least 38 people in several Asian countries.

Officials worry that the H5N1 avian flu virus could be contracted by an animal that can also host a human flu virus. There, they fear, it could mutate and spread through a human population without immunity with deadly results.

In February, veterinarian Teeraphon Sirinauemit announced in Bangkok that H5N1 bird flu had been found in at least two domestic cats and a white tiger. The discovery was significant, he said, because every time the virus jumps to another species, the risk of mutation into a human form increases.

In January, a clouded leopard died of bird flu at a zoo near Bangkok, the first mammal to be killed by the virus besides humans. The virus was discovered in the leopard by researchers at the Animal Hospital of Kasetsart University in Bangkok.

Still, World Health Organization officials say there is no current evidence of cat-to-cat or cat-to-human transmission of H5N1 bird flu.

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