Asian governments need to unite on the issue, because bird flu isn't going away. Outbreaks surfaced last week in Malaysia and again in Thailand, where an 18-year-old became the country's ninth person to die from the virus. News on the research front has been worrying, too. Recent experiments in the Netherlands have shown that cats can carry and spread the H5N1 virus, while South Korean scientists have linked their outbreak this past winter to migratory ducks. Such ducks have a natural resistance to the flu, so they can potentially spread the virus over wide areas without showing symptoms. "This may explain why the virus has reappeared in divergent areas of Thailand and Vietnam, and to me that is the real concern," says Dr. Robert Webster, a bird-flu expert at St. Jude's Research Hospital in Memphis. The fear is that this could all just be a preamble to a far greater catastrophe: every new outbreak and human infection give the unstable virus the chance to mutate further, increasing the chances it could become more lethal and contagious, spreading from human to human, and potentially triggering a global flu pandemic. Says Webster: "It's only a matter of time."
Has avian flu's deadly H5N1 strain claimed its 20th victim in Vietnam? The Vietnamese government doesn't appear particularly eager to know. Officially, the government says it is waiting for the last in a series of tests to confirm that a 14-month-old boy died Sept. 5 of H5N1 bird flu. Yet one Vietnamese health official told TIME the real cause for the delay is the desire to avoid a fresh bird-flu controversy before an Asian-European summit in Hanoi next month. "For the time being, we are just identifying it as flu type A H5 and we don't plan to identify what strain it is," says Tran Duc Long, deputy legal director at the Ministry of Health. The delay has international health experts concerned. "It is an obligation to report it if they have a positive case," says the World Health Organization's Hanoi representative, Hans Troedsson. "It affects international public health and lack of information could have severe implications." Nor is the problem confined to Vietnam: many of Asia's governments appear slow to apply fully the lessons of openness and cooperation from last winter's major outbreak. "There are problems with transparency, difficulties sharing scientific information," says Dr. Yi Guan, an avian-flu expert at the University of Hong Kong. "We can't stop the virus without regional cooperation."