- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

From combined dispatches

BRUSSELS — European Union animal-health experts approved French and Dutch plans yesterday to vaccinate millions of birds against avian flu as a precaution. The two countries are the bloc’s largest poultry producers, and the move comes as fears about bird flu are hurting sales.

In Europe, scene of a string of outbreaks in birds, officials urged people to continue eating poultry. The World Health Organization (WHO) says thoroughly cooked poultry meat and eggs are safe to eat, but that assurance has failed to calm consumers.

But vaccination is controversial, and veterinarians from Belgium, Germany, Greece and Portugal refused to endorse the plan. Although vaccination can protect poultry, it could let them be carriers of the virus without showing symptoms. Scientists fear that it could make it easier for bird flu to mutate and endanger people.

A leading French farm union said poultry consumption was down 20 percent to 30 percent on the same week last year. France has found the virus in a wild duck in the east of the country. Sales in Italy have plunged by about 70 percent, while those in Greece have dropped by at least 40 percent. Austrian authorities found H5N1 in two chickens and three ducks in an animal sanctuary in the southern city of Graz.

The birds were the first case of domestic poultry carrying the virus in the European Union.

In Asia, India and Malaysia said yesterday that 12 persons treated for suspected bird flu had been cleared of having the virus, easing fears that it had spread to humans in additional Asian countries. But WHO said it would carry out tests for bird flu on four Nigerians, including a woman who died last week.

India, battling its first outbreak of the disease in birds, said at least seven persons quarantined in the west of the country had tested negative for the deadly H5N1 strain. Samples from five more persons were being tested.

Malaysia said that tests on five persons admitted to the hospital with breathing problems had proved negative and that it was waiting for results of tests on two children. The country has been hit by its first bird-flu infection in poultry in more than a year. Alarm is growing at the sudden resurgence of the H5N1 virus as it spreads rapidly across Europe, into Africa and now in India, where hundreds of millions of people live side by side with livestock and domestic fowl.

About 200 million birds have died of the virus or been culled around the world. It has also killed more than 90 people since 2003 in seven countries in Asia and the Middle East.

Human victims get the virus through direct contact with infected birds. Experts fear that it is just a matter of time before the virus mutates and spreads easily among people, triggering a pandemic.

In Indonesia, a Health Ministry official said local hospital tests showed a 27-year-old woman who lived in the capital, Jakarta, had died of bird flu. If confirmed by WHO, the woman would be the 20th Indonesian to die from avian flu.

The virus was spreading in poultry in Nigeria and could cause a regional disaster despite efforts by Nigerian authorities to control it, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said yesterday. Six states in the West African country have confirmed outbreaks in birds.

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