Turkish poultry exports banned over flu fears

The specialists in avian influenza want to see whether the Turkish outbreak on an outdoor poultry farm was caused by the same H5N1 strain of bird flu that has killed 60 people in Asia.

Scientists at the government's Veterinary Laboratory Agency in Weybridge, Surrey, are expected to be able to determine the exact strain of the flu virus within two days of receiving samples.

On Sunday, Turkish authorities informed the European Commission that all 1,800 turkeys on an open-air farm in north-western Anatolia had been destroyed after the first symptoms of flu were detected there on 1 October.

Laboratory tests in Turkey confirmed that the outbreak was caused by avian flu but scientists were unable to determine exactly which strain was involved.

"The virological analyses have confirmed the virus is present but, at the moment, we are not able to say what type of virus we are talking about," said Philip Todd, a spokesman for the European Commission.

He said that, in view of the initial findings of the laboratory analysis, Europe has decided to ban all imports of live birds and feathers from Turkey. Only heat-treated poultry meat is exempt.

A team of virologists from Britain and other EU countries have also been sent to Romania to assist in the analysis of samples from a unknown infectious disease in a backyard poultry flock.

Tests have so far proved inconclusive for avian influenza although the Romanian authorities have enforced a restriction zone around the affected area as a precautionary measure.

Normally, avian influenza does not affect humans but the H5N1 strain - which has run rampant in the poultry flocks of several Asian countries - caused at least 117 cases in people, more than half of whom have died.

Many of the cases and deaths have occurred in Vietnam. Thailand and Cambodia are also affected and the latest confirmed case was in a 21-year-old man in Indonesia who was taken ill on 20 September.

All cases so far have been in people who had come into close contact with live birds and they do not appear to have caught the infection from other infected people.

So far, the H5N1 virus has not mutated into a form that is easily transmitted between people but scientists fear that will happen more quickly as the virus spreads around the world to infect more birds and people.

One avian flu scientist in Britain said if the outbreak in Turkey or Romania was confirmed as being caused by the H5N1 strain then it is clear that type of virus is continuing to spread west.

"The concern is that the more widespread avian influenza is, the more chance that it will get into humans and mutate to spread from human to human," he said.

"If it got into poultry in Britain then we know what the costs will be - it will be millions. But if got into humans the costs will be far greater. The costs so far will be nothing compared to a human pandemic," he added.

Migrating birds are thought to have carried the H5NI strain of bird flu from south-east Asia and China to Russian Siberia and Kazakhstan. The fear is birds migrating from Siberia to Britain and Western Europe this autumn could bring the strain with them. Although some anti-flu drugs work against the H5N1 strain, they are expensive and have to be taken for long periods. A vaccine against the strain is undergoing tests but it will not ready for this winter.