India bird flu tests clear 11, fears rise in EU

By Krittivas Mukherjee

MUMBAI - Indian authorities today cleared 11 out of 12 people quarantined following an H5N1 outbreak in chickens, while EU states tested farm birds as the virus threatened to hit their domestic fowl for the first time.

France found a suspected outbreak of the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus at a turkey farm in the east of the country and was awaiting test results due tomorrow. German authorities were still waiting for conclusive results on a farm duck that has been tested twice already.

Cases in domestic birds are likely to shake the poultry industry, which has already been hit by falling sales.

"For the moment it's just a suspicion but we have to kill off the flock this afternoon, even before we have the final results, so that we are in line with international rules," Farms Minister Dominique Bussereau said of the French turkeys.

The farm has more than 11,000 birds.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu, which has killed more than 90 people since 2003, made its first appearance in Slovakia in a wild falcon and a grebe, while scientists in Australia said it would not be surprising if it had arrived on their shores.

Egypt reported the virus had reached further into its territory to provinces in the south and west and Greece said it had found more cases in wild swans in the north of the country.

The rapid spread of the virus from Asia into the Middle East, Africa and Europe has heightened fears of a human pandemic and triggered sharp falls in poultry sales.

In India, where hundreds of millions of people live in rural areas side-by-side with livestock and domestic fowl, the risk of human infection -- which comes from direct contact with an infected bird -- is deemed higher than in other countries.

So far there have been no human cases in India, but authorities were carrying out tests on a dozen people quarantined with suspected bird flu in Navapur, a remote town in India's western Maharashtra state. Eleven of the 12 had tested negative but the last sample was undergoing further tests.

There have been no cases of human-to-human transmissions of the virus, but experts fear H5N1 could mutate into a form where this is possible, causing a pandemic that could kill millions.

A Bulgarian man tested negative after doctors isolated him when two of his ducks died and he began showing flu-like symptoms, health ministry officials said.

In Europe, the most immediate concerns are of the virus hitting domestic poultry. Mass culling would devastate the EU's 20 billion ($36.74 billion) poultry and egg industry.

Memories are still fresh of an outbreak of a different strain of bird flu in the Netherlands in 2003 that led to the culling of 30 million birds, more than a third of the flock.

Poultry producers in France have estimated a 30 per cent fall in sales due to bird flu has cost them 130 million euros since November and the government announced the sector would receive 52 million in aid to deal with the crisis.

No EU farm birds have yet been confirmed to have the virus but health experts, including at the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, say it is almost inevitable the virus will spread from wild birds to poultry flocks.

Europe is preparing for more cases of H5N1 as the spring migration season approaches and new species, possibly already infected, arrive from Africa, EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said.

"It's a concern, because now we have the virus in Africa. Spring migration of birds coming from the south to Europe poses a risk," Kyprianou said.

Hungarian firm Omninvest said its human vaccine against H5N1 was in the final phase of clinical trials and would get a temporary distribution licence in Hungary in March.

Countries have set up protection and surveillance zones to try and halt the spread of the virus. In West Africa, reeling from the discovery of H5N1 in Nigeria this month, countries called for international aid to help pay for emergency action.

- REUTERS

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