Vietnam went on high alert Wednesday following the first confirmed outbreak of the deadly H5N1 virus in over a year even as thousands of poultry were slaughtered in the Mekong Delta.
Chickens and ducks were slaughtered in large numbers in southern Ca Mau and Bac Lieu provinces, after tests on 2,000 poultry that had died earlier tested positive for the H5N1 strain of avian influenza.
'We have begun to cull poultry in and around the infected area this morning,' said Chau Thi Kim Tuyen, deputy director of Ca Mau's animal health department.
'We plan to cull a total of 13,000 chickens and ducks, especially those illegally hatched,' she said.
Vietnam has banned hatching ducklings since late 2005.
The country managed to bring bird flu, which was widespread in flocks nationwide in 2005, under control last year through an aggressive vaccination programme and a ban on hatching new ducks.
No deaths have been reported in either poultry or humans since November 2005.
However, the recurrence of the virus in Ca Mau, 350 km south of Ho Chi Minh City, and in neighbouring Bac Lieu province have set off alarm bells that the virus could make a comeback.
Minister of Agriculture Cao Duc Phat sent an urgent message to all Vietnamese provinces late Tuesday calling on them to hold emergency meetings of standing committees on detecting bird flu in flocks and urging hospitals to be on the lookout for new human cases.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu is not easily contagious among humans, but up to 60 percent of people known to have been infected - usually by sick birds - have died. Vietnam has seen 42 people die of bird flu, second only to Indonesia worldwide.
Scientists also fear that the H5N1 virus could someday mutate into a new human influenza pandemic strain, threatening the lives of millions of people.