In Cambodia, Proximity to Wildlife Sparks Influenza Fears

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: On the street outside Phnom Penh's most prominent Buddhist temple, the merit bird business is brisk. It's an age-old ritual in many parts of Southeast Asia based on the belief that freeing a caged bird brings merit to one's soul.

But in recent years, these wild birds have come to symbolize something very different to public health workers: potential carriers of H5N1, the avian flu virus.

PRISCILLA JOYNER, Wildlife Conservation Society: Sellers are very interested in whether or not these birds do have avian influenza. And so they're interested in knowing about the health of the wildlife and how this impacts their health, as well.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And their livelihood, too.

PRISCILLA JOYNER: And their livelihood, too, yes.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Priscilla Joyner is with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Its staff regularly tests samples of wild birds across East Asia for any signs of flu.

PRISCILLA JOYNER: A big concern here in this area is the very close proximity of people living with domestic animals and interacting with wildlife. And this can either be in the home or this can be in the market or in merit bird training. And this close proximity can be enough pressure to allow a pathogen to jump from one species to the next and then lead to a disease that otherwise may not have occurred.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Although so far merit birds have been free of avian flu, Joyner says Cambodia is in many ways an ideal Petri dish for its spread. People are always around wild birds and domestic animals and poultry in the markets and in backyards of this mostly rural country still recovering from decades of war.

H5N1 is common but harmless in ducks. It is lethal in chickens. And it's deadly when it does make the cross-species leap to humans. Two-thirds of the 400 people who've contracted bird flu have died.

Cambodia has seen just eight human cases since 2005. Almost all had very close contact with infected chickens. So far, the virus has not spread from human to human.

Still, Dr. Sirendes Vong of the Pasteur Institute says bird flu remains a concern, especially if it infects someone who already has another form of flu, including swine flu that spread widely in recent months.

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