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Indonesia warns of bird flu epidemic

As cases mount, officials try to stem spread of the virus

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia could be on the brink of a bird flu epidemic if the virus continues to accelerate, the country's health minister warned yesterday as the number of suspected cases in the capital continued to mount.

Siti Fadillah Supari made her remarks after a pair of young girls with bird flu symptoms died in Jakarta hospitals and two days after the government declared it was taking extraordinary measures to stem the spread of the virus, including the mandatory hospitalization of anyone with suspicious symptoms.

The health ministry has already confirmed four previous deaths from avian influenza, most recently a 37-year-old Jakarta woman who died two weeks ago. Since then, at least 10 other people have been admitted to hospitals with high fevers and breathing difficulties symptomatic of bird flu, including the two girls, ages 5 and 2, who died yesterday. Indonesian health officials said they remain unsure whether the girls had bird flu and are awaiting further test results from a specialized Hong Kong laboratory.

Though bird flu was first detected in Indonesian poultry more than two years ago and then spread across the majority of the country's provinces, health ministry officials had minimized the threat, saying the virus was not infecting humans as it had elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

But after a 38-year-old auditor and two of his daughters died from the disease in a wealthy Jakarta suburb two months ago, the health ministry and officials from the World Health Organization stepped up efforts to control its spread. Apathy quickly shifted to alarm yesterday with a large, front-page headline in the Jakarta Post that read: ''Bird flu outbreak: Is it time to panic?"

Even as Supari urged calm, she reflected the confusion and anxiety now taking hold. The health minister initially told journalists yesterday that the virus was already epidemic in Indonesia but later called reporters to say she had misspoken, clarifying that she believed only that the disease could become epidemic.

Since 2003, the H5N1 strain of bird flu sweeping through poultry population in Asia has killed a total of 60 people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia, according to WHO.

United Nations health specialists warn the virus could either mutate or obtain new genetic material, allowing it to spread more easily among humans, sparking a global pandemic, and killing tens of millions of people. So far, only a few victims of bird flu are suspected of contracting the disease from other people, in nearly all cases other family members.

In Indonesia, Jakarta's governor shuttered the country's largest zoo on Monday after 19 birds tested positive for avian flu.

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