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Indonesia's rising bird flu death toll worries experts

By Wire services
Published August 9, 2006

JAKARTA, Indonesia - The fast-mounting human death toll from bird flu in Indonesia - now believed the country worst-hit by the disease - concerns experts who fear the virus will keep infecting people until it is controlled in poultry.

Local tests concluded two teenagers living in Jakarta's outskirts succumbed to the H5N1 virus this week. Specimens have been sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for confirmation, and if tests are positive, the country's death toll would rise to 44, making Indonesia the world's hardest-hit nation.

The country has racked up nearly a third of the world's fatalities in just one year, with the latest cases surpassing Vietnam's reported 42 deaths, which occurred over about 2½ years.

But experts say the number of human deaths is a symptom of a much larger problem - the rampant spread of infection among the country's billions of poultry raised in backyard farms.

"When you have trouble controlling infection among the chicken flocks, you are naturally going to see continuing infections among humans," Dr. Anthony Fauci, infectious disease chief at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, told the Associated Press.

He said the more it spreads, the greater chance it has of eventually evolving into a strain that could cause a human pandemic.

"It's obviously a toll in human suffering, but it also continues to give this virus the capability of circulating," he said. "And the more it circulates, the more you have an opportunity."

Officials assure: Castro will be better soon

HAVANA - Official assurances that Fidel Castro will be back on his feet in a few weeks after intestinal surgery have trickled down to the street, where Cubans say the leader's time isn't up yet.

"He is invulnerable and will get better," said Lazaro M. Martinez, a 65-year-old flower vendor. "We are anxious to see him, but we also understand the situation he is in."

Castro has not been seen publicly since July 26. Five days later, his secretary went on state television to announce that the leader had undergone surgery for intestinal bleeding and was temporarily ceding power to his younger brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro.

Statements in recent days - such as Vice President Carlos Lage's remark that Castro himself has said he'll be back at work "in a few weeks" - seem to have calmed uncertainty and speculation among Cubans that their leader was on his deathbed, or maybe even in his grave. Still, details on his specific condition or what surgical procedure Castro underwent have yet to be released.

Many Cubans say they have no reason to doubt the statements from officials that Castro will return.

"We trust in our leaders," Aleida Guevara, the daughter of Latin American revolutionary fighter Ernesto "Che" Guevara, said.

Security forces kill seven militants in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan - Security forces killed seven militants and captured a former Taliban official, while insurgents obstructed the distribution of emergency aid to thousands of flood-hit villagers in southeastern Afghanistan, officials said Tuesday.

U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces clashed Tuesday with Taliban militants in the Andar district of flood-struck Ghazni province, leaving four militants killed, two police officials said on condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak to media.

In southern Helmand province - the focus of a recent upsurge in Taliban attacks - police killed two Taliban late Monday after coming under attack, provincial police Chief Ghulam Nabi Malakhail said.

In eastern Paktika province, around 50 Taliban sneaked in from Pakistan and traded heavy machine gun fire with Afghan police late Monday, said Sayyed Jamal, spokesman for the provincial governor. One militant was killed, he said.

Elsewhere ...

PANDA TWINS HAVE TWINS: Twin giant pandas each gave birth to twin cubs this week as the number of pandas born in captivity this year in China rose to six, state media reported Tuesday. The sisters, Qi Zhen and Qi Yuan, delivered their babies on Sunday and Monday at the Chengdu Giant Panda Reproduction and Research Center.

PHILIPPINES VOLCANO: A volcano in the Philippines showed more signs of erupting Tuesday, belching ash three times overnight as officials evacuated tens of thousands of villagers.

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