France boosts bird flu control

Health officials in the southwest French department of the Landes began inoculating flocks of birds intended for production of foie gras, in an operation against H5N1 that was expected to take several weeks.

Geese on a farm in the village of Classun were the first to receive a vaccine based on the related H5N2 virus.

Experts see vaccination as a last resort in countries with an advanced level of veterinary organisation. Confinement of domestic fowl, isolation of suspect cases, surveillance and selected slaughter is still the preferred option.

An exception was requested for southwest France because it was deemed impractical to confine the region’s large flocks.

On Saturday France became the first European country to report an outbreak of the potentially deadly strain of the bird flu virus in domestic poultry, after hundreds of turkeys succumbed at a farm in the eastern department of Ain.

France is the fourth largest chicken exporter in the world and on Monday the French trade ministry announced that about 20 countries were now banning imports of French poultry and foie gras.

Spread continues in Africa

Meanwhile the virus continued its advance into Africa, with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) reporting the first cases in Niger.

Nigeria, which was previously the only west African country with the disease, reported that two more states in the north, Yobe and Nassarawa, had been hit.

A total of 300,000 birds have died or been slaughtered in Nigeria since the virus was detected two weeks ago, officials said.

In Nairobi, Kenyan authorities said 400 dead chickens were being tested for H5N1.

The bird flu virus is carried mainly by wild waterfowl, and with the springtime migration north to Europe imminent, the implications of large-scale African infection are far-reaching.

Paris meeting

Chief veterinary officers from more than 50 countries in Europe as well as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Syria started a two-day meeting at the OIE’s headquarters in Paris aimed at coordinating their response to the worsening epidemic.

OIE director-general Bernard Vallat warned that bird flu was transforming from “epidemic to pandemic.”

“With the exception of Australia and New Zealand, which are not hit by bird migrations from affected areas, the rest of the world is directly exposed. Various clues have raised the fear it could contaminate the American continent,” he told France’s Le Monde newspaper.

Elsewhere in Europe, Bosnia reported its first cases of H5N1 in two migrating swans found dead near the central town of Jajce.

Germany reported more flu cases in wild birds and Switzerland said a first case of the broader H5 virus had been detected. A swan in Croatia also died of the disease.

Moscow said an outbreak of H5N1 was detected in domestic fowl in the southern Russian region of Stavropol. A case of H5 bird flu was confirmed in domestic poultry in Azerbaijan and tests were being conducted to determine whether it was the H5N1 strain.

Parts of a zoo in Ukraine’s southern port city of Odessa were placed in quarantine pending test results after pheasants and parrots began dying last week.

India slaughtered hundreds of thousands of chickens and checked around 90,000 people for bird flu symptoms in the north-western state of Gujarat as authorities ordered tests on dead birds in Assam in the northeast.

Experts fear that H5N1, which has killed more than 90 people, mostly in Asia, since 2003, may mutate into a form that can pass between humans, launching a pandemic that could kill millions.

Human deaths have been recorded in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam.

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