Japan bans American chicken after latest outbreak of bird flu

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Japan has suspended imports of chicken from America, its fourth-largest supplier, following the confirmation of an outbreak of bird flu in the US.

The Agriculture Minister, Yoshiyuki Kamei, said the suspension was a "precautionary measure" and that he did not know how long it would last. Japan has already banned chicken from Thailand and China, its top suppliers, after the outbreak of the deadly avian virus across Asia. "We would consider restarting imports only when we have sent our own people to thoroughly check facilities in each country," Mr Kamei said yesterday.

American officials confirmed the outbreak, which led to the slaughter of 12,000 chickens on a farm in Delaware on Saturday, but said that the virus was an H7 strain, fatal to poultry but not transmissible to humans. The deadly H5 strain, which can jump from animals to humans, has killed 18 people in Thailand and Vietnam and lead to the slaughter of 50 million chickens across Asia.

Delaware's Secretary of Agriculture, Michael Scuse, said he was "fairly confident" that the virus had not spread, but was awaiting the results of tests on neighbouring farms due tomorrow.

Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea have also suspended imports of US chicken, while Hong Kong has stopped imports from Delaware.

China confirmed cases of bird flu in six further provinces yesterday, but the agricultural ministry said that it had "not yet discovered any cases of humans catching the disease".

There have been fears that the virus might mutate into a version that could pass between humans, but after a reassessment of tests on two Vietnamese sisters who died earlier this month - it was thought after catching the virus from their brother - the World Health Organisation said that the flu had "not changed into a form capable of easy human-to-human transmission".

The United Nations' agency said the "reassuring" test showed that "both viruses are of avian origin and contain no human influenza genes".

However, a specialist for the agency expressed surprise yesterday at the mortality rates of people who had caught the virus, with new figures suggesting that the current outbreak of bird flu is about twice as deadly to humans as that in the 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong.

David Hui, part of a team of experts who arrived in Vietnam yesterday to aid the effort to contain the outbreak, said: "The data suggests it is in the range of 60 to 70 per cent. We are quite shocked by this. Last time the mortality rate was 30 per cent."