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Fears of Avian Flu Outbreak Grow As Vaccine Stockpile Runs Short

By Keith Bradsher and Lawrence K. Altman

The New York Times -- BANGKOK, Thailand

A 9-year-old girl in northern Thailand made an innocent mistake late in September, a show of industriousness that should have impressed her family but killed her instead.

Eleven of her family’s 13 chickens had fallen sick and died of avian influenza, so the girl’s mother and grandmother killed the last two as a precaution, Thai health officials said. Not realizing that the healthy-looking birds could still be infectious, the girl plucked the chickens and prepared them for cooking. She died at a Thai provincial hospital on Oct. 3.

In communes in Vietnam, small chicken farms in Thailand and the jungles of northern Malaysia, health officials, scientists and farm workers are fighting an increasingly menacing yet little-understood foe: the A(H5N1) strain that causes avian influenza, or more popularly, bird flu.

A spate of recent deaths, including the first possible case of human-to-human transmission, has stirred fears of a broader outbreak among people and raised the possibility of a human pandemic.

Tamiflu, a powerful anti-viral drug that might slow the early stages of an outbreak, is in extremely short supply, according to the World Health Organization. And a vaccine -- the only thing that could stop the global spread of the disease -- will not be available for months, at the earliest: the Chiron Corp., one of two manufacturers trying to develop a human bird flu vaccine, last week had its license to make conventional flu vaccine temporarily suspended by the British government.

The suspension created a severe shortage of the flu vaccine in the United States. Whether it will affect the testing of the company’s experimental human avian influenza vaccine remains to be seen.

Bird flu is uncommonly lethal, having killed 31 of the 43 people confirmed to have caught it in the last year, all in Thailand and Vietnam.