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Russia warns bird flu may spread to Europe

Russia, which is scrambling to contain a bird flu outbreak in Siberia, warned the world that migrating birds may export the deadly virus to Europe and the Middle East in coming months.
/ Source: Reuters

Russia, which is scrambling to contain a bird flu outbreak in Siberia, warned the world on Monday that migrating birds may export the deadly virus to Europe and the Middle East in coming months.

The outbreak, previously confined to five remote areas of Siberia, appeared to be moving westward on Monday after the virus hit a major industrial region — Chelyabinsk in the Ural mountains which sever Asia from Europe.

And officials said the virus, which can kill humans, was likely to spread further.

“Apart from Russia’s south, migrating birds may spread the virus to nearby countries (Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine, Mediterranean countries) because bird migration routes from Siberia also go through those regions in autumn,” said Russia’s top state epidemiologist, Gennady Onishchenko.

Containment efforts
Russia has been battling bird flu since mid-July. On Monday, officials condoned off roads near infected villages and killed hundreds of birds to contain the epidemic which has also hit neighboring Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

It was unclear whether the virus found in Chelyabinsk was the deadly H5N1 strain that has killed more than 50 people in Asia since 2003.

Carried by flocks of wild birds migrating from Siberia to warmer regions, the virus has been steadily moving westward through Siberia’s Novosibirsk, Tyumen, Omsk, Kurgan and Altai.

Addressing regional health officials in a letter, Onishchenko said the disease could also hit Russia’s major agricultural regions of Krasnodar, Stavropol and Rostov.

“The most likely cause of infection in the Siberian and Ural federal regions is the migration of birds from Southeast Asia and their contacts with domestic birds,” stated the letter posted on the Web site of the state’s consumer rights watchdog.

While listing a number of recommendations aimed at preventing humans from getting infected, he said bird migration in spring 2006 could further spread the virus in European Russia and bring more fowl viruses to Siberia from Southeast Asia.

From Asia to Europe
Although no people have so far been infected in Russia and Kazakhstan, there are fears the disease could spread to humans on the Eurasian landmass, possibly unleashing a global influenza pandemic.

Chelyabinsk, separated from European Russia by the Ural mountains and technically still in Siberia, is the westernmost region to have been struck so far.

It lies about 600 miles both from Moscow and the region where the first flu outbreak was reported.

“All ill and infected birds are being slaughtered there,” the Agriculture Ministry said in a statement.

Media reported that roads leading to the infected village of Oktyabrskoye in Chelyabinsk had been cordoned off to prevent the virus from spreading further.

In other affected regions, police boosted road checks, and 400 domestic birds were culled in Chelyabinsk alone to block the virus that has killed more than 10,000 birds countrywide.

There was no word on Monday on the situation in Kazakhstan and Mongolia where bird flu has also been registered along their sprawling borders with Russian Siberia.