Thailand and Cambodia confirmed bird flu outbreaks Friday, bringing the number of Asian nations hit by the virus to six. World health officials recommended quarantining people as an ailing Thai man died _ the country's first suspected bird flu death.
Thailand is the second country where people, not just chickens, have come down with the illness recently. The other is Vietnam, where the virus has claimed five lives.
Together with the re-emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome, also a flu-like illness, Asia is on a region-wide health alert. Governments have started slaughtering chickens as they scramble to contain the outbreak. Millions of chickens have died or been killed in the six countries, which also include South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
Scientists have reached no firm conclusions on why the flu is so contagious, but a leading theory is its adaptability. The World Health Organization fears bird flu could combine with a human flu to create a dangerous mutant form.
Dr. Klaus Stohr, head of the U.N. agency's influenza program, recommended Friday that people with bird flu be quarantined to avoid contact with sufferers of regular influenza.
However, he said he saw no need for the kind of travel warnings WHO issued during last year's outbreak of SARS, which killed nearly 800 people worldwide.
"We have to put things into perspective. There is a chance that something can go wrong but it looks if we act decisively now then there still is a window of opportunity here to control the disease before it takes on global proportions."
Killing chickens in affected countries is "the key to the solution of the whole problem," Stohr added. "We do not have a problem of international spread by infected humans. We may have a problem of international spread by birds."
Thailand's government confirmed the disease was present in its poultry population. It also said tests showed two boys, one 6 and the other 7, have the virus and two people are suspected of having it. One, reportedly a 56-year-old man who raised fighting cocks, died Friday, the government said.
Cambodia also confirmed its outbreak while Laos held an emergency meeting Friday to evaluate cases of dead poultry there.
Farmers in Thailand have been saying for more than a week that their chickens, like those in neighboring countries, were dying of bird flu. But until Friday, officials had maintained the chickens were suffering from fowl cholera _ which they said posed no danger to people.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra denied his government tried to cover up the situation. "We were waiting for the tests," he said. "I know what I'm doing."
Thailand is among the world's top five poultry exporters. Stocks in chicken producers plunged and the European Union joined Japan, together Thailand's largest chicken markets, in slapping import bans. Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines have done likewise.
Thailand will host a meeting Jan. 28 of agriculture and health ministers from bird flu-affected countries.
The WHO will send two influenza experts to Thailand this weekend to help cope with the outbreak.
Scientists believe people get the disease through contact with sick birds.