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Bird flu hits EU poultry for first time

The virus infected two chickens in Austria, as the disease threatened to run rampant.

india Updated: Feb 22, 2006 18:41 IST

The deadly H5N1 bird flu virus was detected in poultry in the European Union for the first time on Wednesday.

The virus infected two chickens in Austria, as the disease threatened to run rampant despite worldwide efforts to confine it.

The chickens were contaminated in the Noah's Ark animal pound in the southern city of Graz, where an injured swan infected with bird flu had been housed.

Hans Seitinger, agriculture official for the Steiermark region, told reporters that three ducks from Noah's Ark had also tested positive for H5N1.

Also on Wednesday, the European Commission approved French and Dutch plans to vaccinate millions of their poultry against bird flu.

Poultry sales have plummeted across the continent in recent weeks amid consumer fears of infection.

The Commission, however, imposed certain conditions.

Vaccination remains controversial because vaccinated birds, while protected, can remain carriers of the virus without showing symptoms.

Some experts also argue that vaccination could make it easier for bird flu to mutate and endanger people.

In Nigeria, meanwhile, a top Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) official warned Wednesday that the continuing spread of the H5N1 strain -- lethal to birds and humans alike -- could cause a regional disaster despite concerted control efforts.

Africa is considered to be especially vulnerable due to poor health infrastructure and weakened immune systems in much of the population as a result of malnourishment and the AIDS pandemic.

The Austrian cases -- the first in domestic fowl in the EU -- are especially alarming to the Union's poultry industry, so far untouched by the epidemic, and to health officials worried about human infection.

The nearest outbreaks on chicken farms have been in Ukraine and Romania.

In Asia, where the H5N1 strain has killed nearly 100 people since 1997, the disease is thought to have spread from wild birds to domestic fowl, and then to humans working with infected chickens.

The greatest fear is that the disease could mutate into a form easily communicable between humans, as has happened historically during global flu pandemics.

Despite massive efforts to halt the disease's spread following outbreaks among migratory water fowl in a dozen European countries, new H5N1 cases are appearing daily across the continent.

Initially optimistic, health and government officials are now saying that swift eradication is highly unlikely.

"We will have to live with the virus for the foreseeable future," Germany's Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer said on Wednesday.

Similar warnings came from Afghanistan on Wednesday, where an FAO official -- noting that the country is "virtually surrounded" by confirmed H5N1 cases -- said that "an outbreak of the disease among birds in Afghanistan is virtually unavoidable."

In Africa a top UN health official suggested that the disease was defying all attempts to halt its spread.

"There is ample evidence that the Nigerian bird flu situation is difficult and worrisome," said Joseph Domenech, the UN body's chief veterinary officer.

"The deadly H5N1 avian influenza virus continues to spread in poultry in Nigeria and could cause a regional disaster despite strong control efforts taken by the Nigerian authorities," he said.

Nigerian health workers, meanwhile, continued the gruesome task of suffocating tens of thousands of chickens in plastic bags in the northern state of Kano, one of the epicentres of the deadly H5N1 virus.

The process is necessary as chopping off their heads increases the risk of infection to the workers involved.

The FAO said it was particularly concerned about Niger, which directly borders affected areas in Nigeria and where two million people are suffering "acute hunger".

"If a poultry epidemic should develop beyond the boundaries of Nigeria the effects would be disastrous for the livelihoods and the food security of millions of people," Domenech said on Friday as he visited the country.