Tests on wild duck as France fears its case of bird flu

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The Independent Online

A wild duck, which was found dead on Monday in the commune of Joyeux in Ain, proved positive for the less virulent H5 strain, which "bore strong similarities to the H5N1 Asian influenza", the Agriculture Ministry said yesterday. Samples from the dead bird have been sent to the EU's reference laboratory for avian influenza in Weybridge, Surrey. Bosnia also reported its first suspected outbreak of avian flu in two swans.

Philip Tod, a spokesman for the European Commission, said last night: "If a member state finds a confirmed case of avian influenza H5 in a wild bird there is a high probability, in the current circumstances, that it is likely to be H5N1."

Amid mounting concern over the spread of the virus across Europe, The Netherlands yesterday joined France in putting forward plans to vaccinate poultry. Dutch officials have asked for a meeting with the European Commission on Monday to consider their proposal to inoculate up to six million birds. Akzo Nobel, a Netherlands-based company, said it is to supply at least 30 million doses of vaccine to the French authorities which want to use it in three western départements: Landes, Loire-Atlantique and Vendée.

The Dutch and the French requests are likely to be considered on Tuesday at a meeting of experts in Brussels.

But scientists are divided over the effectiveness of vaccination and officials worry that other countries might use inoculation as a pretext to ban European poultry imports. The H5N1 virus has spread from Asia to Europe and Africa, infecting 169 people and killing at least 91.

Fatalities have been confined to those who were in close proximity to poultry and, so far, there is no evidence of transmission from human to human. Should that occur, scientists fear it could lead to a pandemic.

The immediate concern is to prevent the spread of the virus from wild birds to poultry.

In 2003, the Netherlands suffered an outbreak of a different strain of bird flu which led to the culling of 30 million poultry, more than a third of its total.

France has already installed a 3km security zone around the place where the infected duck was discovered.

Under EU rules a zone extending a further 7km must be set up in which poultry must be kept indoors and cannot be moved, except to slaughterhouses. Within this area the hunting of wild birds must be banned and poultry owners must be given information about the risks.

At present the H5N1 virus has been found in six EU countries: Greece, Slovenia, Italy, Austria, Hungary and Germany.

Earlier this week, France extended its ban on keeping poultry outside to the whole of the country, saying there was a higher risk from bird flu following recent cases in Europe.

The French government has said it intends to have 14 million human vaccination kits ready by the end of the year, including Tamiflu.

Elsewhere, the World Health Organisation confirmed that an Iraqi who died in January was the country's second human victim of bird flu. Officials said the disease had infected chickens in Egypt for the first time.