February 22, 2006

India awaits bird flu results

By Krittivas Mukherjee

MUMBAI (Reuters) - Seven Malaysians living near an area
with bird flu were being treated in hospital on Wednesday,
while India anxiously waited to see if a group of 12 in
quarantine were the country's first human victims of the virus.

The seven, including five children aged between 2 and 12,
all had respiratory problems and test results would be
available within a day, Malaysia's health minister said.

Alarm is growing at the sudden resurgence of the H5N1 virus
as it spreads rapidly across Europe, into Africa and now India,
where hundreds of millions of people live in rural areas
side-by-side with livestock and domestic fowl.

Experts fear it is just a matter of time before the virus
mutates and spreads easily among people, triggering a pandemic.

Bird flu has killed more than 90 people since 2003. Despite
its rapid march around the globe, it remains hard for people to
catch. But if it mutates, a pandemic could bring economic chaos
and overwhelm health services.

Indian health workers, some wringing the necks of chickens,
others using poison, are carrying out a mass cull of birds to
try to stamp out the country's first outbreak of the virus.

The dozen quarantined people have been placed in an
isolation ward at a hospital in Navapur town in the western
state of Maharashtra, where H5N1 was found in poultry on

Those quarantined either had flu-like symptoms or were kept
there as a precautionary measure. Blood samples from dozens of
other people were also being tested, officials said.

"The initial results are expected today (Wednesday)
evening," Vijay Satbir Singh, Maharashtra's top health
official, told Reuters. "We are keeping our fingers crossed."

Malaysian Health Minister Chua Soi Lek told reporters the
seven residents lived within 300 metres of the affected area on
the edge of the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where 40 infected
chickens died last week in the country's first outbreak in more
than a year.


In Brussels, EU animal health experts considered requests
from France and the Netherlands, Europe's biggest poultry
producers, to be allowed to vaccinate millions of birds against
avian influenza. Talks on the request are continuing.

Austrian authorities found H5N1 in two chicken and three
ducks in an animal sanctuary in the southern city of Graz.

While Austria's health ministry said the birds were not
part of any commercial stock, the birds are the first case of
domestic poultry carrying the H5N1 virus in the European Union,
rather than in wild birds such as swans.

Migratory birds are thought to be at least one way the
disease is being carried and more than 30 countries have
reported cases since 2003, seven of them recording human

In Indonesia, where the virus is endemic in poultry, a
Health Ministry official said a 27-year-old woman who lived in
the capital had died of bird flu, according to local hospital
tests. If confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the
woman would be the 20th Indonesian to die from avian flu.

In Europe, officials urged people to carry on eating
poultry meat after a string of outbreaks in birds. The WHO says
thoroughly cooked poultry meat and eggs are safe to eat but
that assurance has failed to calm consumers in many countries.

The spread of the virus is presenting the world's investors
and financial markets with just the kind of risk that is
hardest to deal with -- the unknown.

"That's a massive wild card out there," said Youssef
Affany, head of investment counselling in Europe for wealth
manager Citigroup Private Bank in Geneva.

"(But) there are very few things you can do directly."

(Additional reporting by Adeel Halim in NANDURBAR, Rina
Chandran in MUMBAI, Kamil Zaheer in NEW DELHI, Barani Krishnan
in PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia, Jeremy Smith in BRUSSELS, Boris
Groendahl in VIENNA, Jeremy Gaunt in LONDON)

(For more stories, pictures and video on bird flu see: