Indonesia confirmed on Tuesday that a fourth person in the country had died of bird flu, while China said hundreds of farm geese had succumbed to a fresh outbreak of a disease now also spreading quickly to Europe.
The deadly H5N1 virus first surfaced in Asia but appears to be heading west, often on the wings of migrating birds. There are fears that Africa, where many countries have poor health systems, could also soon report cases in birds.
The European Union banned imports of pet birds after a parrot died of the H5N1 strain in Britain.
The World Health Organization has said that it might only be a matter of time before the H5N1 strain develops the ability to pass easily from human to human.
If that happens, millions of people could die and economies grind to a halt as nations ban travel and curb trade to limit the spread of the virus and deal with the sick.
More than 60 people in Southeast Asia have died of bird flu and experts say the world is overdue for a human flu pandemic, with the most likely cause an animal strain which mutates.
Canada’s Prime Minister, Paul Martin, warned that efforts to combat a flu pandemic could suffer badly if governments failed to prevent mass panic in the event of widespread fatalities.
“Public fear, and bad information, could all too easily snowball into panic,” Martin told a conference in Ottawa.
The EU meanwhile halted imports of live birds and some poultry from Croatia, where authorities started to slaughter 10,000 birds on Tuesday, a day after Russia confirmed more bird flu in poultry.
France ordered poultry farmed in more than one fifth of the country to be kept inside over concerns that migratory wildfowl could spread bird flu to the country.
Spain banned raising poultry in the open air near wetlands it considers at risk of bird flu, while Bulgaria banned imports of birds from Macedonia and Croatia after both countries reported suspected bird flu outbreaks.
The number of Western African countries with bans on poultry imports reached four on Tuesday as Togo and Sierra Leone joined Gambia and Senegal.
Some experts believe the first human-to-human mutation of H5N1 is likely to occur in Asia, where 62 people have died of the disease since late 2003. No human infections have been reported in Europe.
“Europe is a minor sideshow to what is really going on,” said Roger Morris, an expert on the spread of the disease at Massey University in New Zealand.
Farmers in Asia often live close to birds and livestock, making it much easier for humans to be infected with the virus.
Indonesia’s Health Ministry said on Tuesday that tests had confirmed that a man who died in September was positive for bird flu. Seven people in total have been infected with H5N1.
In China’s latest outbreak, hundreds of farm geese died in the eastern province of Anhui, Noureddin Mona, of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, told Reuters.
He said the Agriculture Ministry had told him on Monday that 2,100 birds had been infected, 550 had died and 45,000 culled.
“We are highly concerned about this,” he said.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the outbreak had been brought under control and neither new cases nor human infections had been discovered.
In Europe, trade in poultry has already suffered and meat sales in some countries have slumped.
In a bid to reassure consumers, Hungary’s Poultry Product Council took a full-page advertisement in a national newspaper saying: “There is no bird flu epidemic in Hungary.”
In Italy, thousands of poultry farmers demonstrated demanding action against “irrational fear” over bird flu which has cut national consumption of chicken by more than half.
In Hong Kong and Taiwan, exotic bird markets are largely empty over customers’ fears about catching avian flu after birds in a smuggled cargo from China were found to have H5N1.
In Vietnam, where 41 people have died of bird flu, the government is considering rules that would ban the raising and trading of live poultry in urban areas as well as the sale of a traditional pudding made from the raw blood of ducks and geese.