March 14, 2006

Afghan leader says shun chickens, flu test awaited

By Yousuf Azimy

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghans should avoid touching chickens,
President Hamid Karzai said on Tuesday, as the country awaited
test results to determine if bird flu found in five chickens is
the deadly H5N1 strain.

There is a high risk the H5 bird flu subtype found in two
different places in Afghanistan is H5N1, the United Nations
said. Results of tests to determine the strain are expected
later on Tuesday or on Wednesday.

"Don't touch chickens at the moment, until this virus is
finished," Karzai told farmers at an agriculture meeting in

The H5 subtype of the bird flu virus was confirmed in three
chickens in Kabul and two in the eastern province of Nangarhar
on Sunday.

No suspected human cases of the disease have been reported
in Afghanistan, the Health Ministry said.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said there
was a high risk the virus was the deadly H5N1 strain that has
infected 177 people, killing 98 of them, in parts of Asia and
the Middle East since 2003.

Experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that passes
easily between humans and trigger a pandemic that could kill

Most people are infected by handling sick birds or their
droppings but the World Health Organization says eating
well-cooked chicken meat and eggs are safe.


There is concern that Afghanistan, with weak veterinary and
health sectors after decades of war, will struggle to contain
an outbreak.

Agriculture officials say they don't even have protective
suits that should be worn if authorities order a cull of
poultry flocks.

Adding to concerns, most Afghan farmers and chicken traders
are illiterate and know little about bird flu.

Authorities have made announcements on television and
through mosques urging people not to hunt wild birds because of
the risk from avian flu, but there has been little information
about the danger to poultry.

Kabul's chicken markets have been open as usual this week
with chickens kept in cages on the streets and birds being
handled and sold, but traders said business had dropped off

"Our business is down 90 percent. It's not only
Afghanistan, all over the world people aren't buying chickens,"
said Mohammad Aziz, a chicken importer in one Kabul market.

"It's all the fault of the media. The media hasn't
explained about this virus, they're just saying 'stop eating
chicken, it will kill you'," he said.

Another trader, Shah Mohammad, said he hadn't stopped
eating chicken but many of his customers had.

"Before, business was great but it's not any more. We're
only selling about 15 kg (33 lb) a day, which is nothing," said
Mohammad, who sells frozen chicken.

"We've bought lots of chicken but now we don't know what to
do with it," he said.