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Myanmar’s largest spirit festival postponed after swine flu outbreak

Myanmar people wear masks as they walk in front of the Yangon General Hospital in Yangon, Myanmar, 26 July 2017. Photo: EPA/Lynn Bo Bo

Those looking forward to the bizarre mix of tradition, cross-dressing and festive fun of Myanmar’s Tuang Byone Nat festival will just have to wait after authorities decided to put the gathering on hold amid a swine flu outbreak that has infected at least 51 people and killed 10.

Tens of thousands of people were expected to make the annual pilgrimage to Taung Byone village near Mandalay today to honour the 37 Great Nats – spirits of heroes who met a violent death – by partying and offering them plenty of food, drink and fun.

The century-old festival, which has also come to be seen as a celebration of the country’s LGBT community thanks to cross-dressing having long being a central theme, was initially scheduled to run from 31 July to 7 August. However, it was postponed after an emergency meeting between Zaw Myint Maun, Mandalay’s regional chief minister, and the festival’s committee on Sunday.

“As the festival draws thousands of visitors from across the country, we believe it is the best to postpone it until the situations are brought under control,” Zaw Myint Maung told reporters, according to Myanmar Times.

The swine flu epidemic has already caused Myanmar’s government to reach out to the World Health Organisation for support in combating the spread of the potentially deadly illness.

“We have requested help from the WHO including diagnosis equipment and medicine,” Than Tun Aung, deputy director general of the public health department told AFP on Thursday.

The respiratory disease is contracted through contact between humans and pigs and can then be transmitted easily between people through inhalation. The infections in the country’s commercial capital Yangon are from the same strain that was first identified in 2009, when a global pandemic broke out that US scientists believe may have killed up to 575,000 people worldwide.

Myanmar also currently finds itself dealing with an outbreak of H5N1, or ‘bird flu’, which has infected at least 51 people who are currently being treated, according to the health department, which said there have been no deaths recorded so far.

The postponing of the festival is the latest of many precautions taking place across the nation in an attempt to minimize the spread of the strains. The first cases of bird flu were detected mid-July in Thanintharyi region, where officials quickly shut down 141 schools for days.

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