Bird flu fears intensify as France is forced to slaughter turkeys

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The Independent Online

The spread of the H5N1 strain of bird flu made a worrying new advance yesterday with a probable outbreak in a large turkey farm in eastern France.

More than 11,000 turkeys were slaughtered at the battery farm near Versailleux in the Ain after a form of H5 bird flu began to spread rapidly through the flocks. Tests were continuing last night to decide whether or not the birds were infected with the H5N1 strain but this seemed highly likely.

The farm, in the Bresse region, not far from the Swiss border, is close to lakes where two wild ducks have died from the virulent form of avian flu in recent days. Seven new cases of H5N1 among dead swans in the same area were confirmed yesterday.

One of the worrying aspects of the outbreak - the first in a poultry farm in Europe - is that the afflicted turkeys were kept permanently under cover. Veterinary officials said that they must have been infected indirectly through wild bird droppings brought into the poultry houses, on bedding straw or on boots.

The Bresse region is one of the chief poultry-rearing areas of France, the largest producer and exporter of poultry in Europe. Poultry sales have fallen by 30 per cent in France in recent weeks. French government officials were at pains yesterday to point out that poultry was safe to eat and there was no immediate reason to fear an outbreak of the disease among humans. The owners of the turkey farm, M. and Mme Daniel Clair, and their children and workers, have been placed under quarantine at home and a surveillance zone has been set up covering a third of the département of Ain.

The disease - which has killed 90 people in Asia - can only spread to humans through extensive contact with an infected bird. Fears of a world-wide avian influenza pandemic - which might kill millions - are based on the possibility that the deadly virus might eventually mutate in contact with a human strain of flu. This is regarded as feasible but not inevitable.

However, the sense of crisis and foreboding in France was increased by the fact that - by coincidence - yesterday was the day selected for a human bird flu "simulation exercise" in the city of Lyons, 70 miles from the turkey outbreak in Bresse.

The Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, was in Lyons for the exercise, in which two "infected passengers" arrived at the airport from Asia and were immediately placed in an isolation ward in a local hospital. Anti-flu injections were then tested on volunteers.

Asked how avian flu could have infected turkeys which are kept indoors, M. Villepin said: "We are studying very carefully what happened on this farm. Depending on what we find, we may have to strengthen our security recommendations."

Meanwhile Bernard Vallat, France's former chief vet - now director general of the World Organisation for Animal Health - warned yesterday that the H5N1 virus was now so endemic in migratory wildfowl that is was certain to spread to almost every country in the world. The only possible exceptions, he said, were Australia and New Zealand.

This contradicts British predictions in recent days that avian flu is unlikely to come to the UK. Yesterday Slovakia confirmed its first cases of H5N1 in two dead birds, while Germany announced the deadly strain had been detected in wild birds in two more states.

M. Vallat also criticised the European Union for accepting French and Dutch demands that poultry farmers should be allowed to vaccinate their birds, which might mask the presence of the disease and make it harder to control.