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Tourists tested for bird flu after Thailand visit

China said a fresh outbreak of bird flu was free of any human infections, but three people on a French island off Africa were being tested in what were thought to be the first suspected human cases outside Asia.
/ Source: Reuters

China said a fresh outbreak of bird flu was free of any human infections, but three people on a French island off Africa were being tested on Wednesday in what were thought to be the first suspected human cases outside Asia.

“These three people who all traveled to Thailand have visited a bird zoo where they had come into contact with birds,” French Health Minister Xavier Bertrand said of the tourists who were now back home on the Indian Ocean island of Reunion.

“Initial tests have been done there and these came out positive,” he said, but fuller results would only be ready on Thursday. “For the moment, these are only suspected bird flu cases. Nothing is confirmed.”

In China’s new outbreak of the virulent H5N1 strain of avian flu, its third case since last week, hundreds of chickens and ducks died in a village in central Hunan province.

Beijing notified the United Nations on Tuesday, according to the Web site of the World Organization for Animal Health.

In Europe, where the first cases of the disease surfaced in recent weeks as birds migrate for winter, Croatia confirmed H5N1 killed some dead swans found by a pond there last week.

Sixty-two people have died from the virus after close contact with birds in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

H5N1 cannot pass between humans but scientists fear it could mutate to do so, unleashing a pandemic that could kill large numbers.

Reunion said two H5N1 tests on the first suspect there, a 43-year-old man, had shown different results -- one uncertain, the other positive.

He was admitted to hospital on Saturday and all three were undergoing antiviral treatment. This can help, though there is no vaccine and one in two infected people to date have died.

Clampdown
Croatia said tests confirmed H5N1 in swans, taking further into Europe the lethal strain that surfaced in South Korea two years ago and has now spread to Turkey, Romania and Russia.

Germany and Greece were also testing dead birds.

Britain said an imported parrot that died of H5N1 might not have been the only bird in quarantine to have had the virus, and others were being tested. The European Union said on Tuesday it was banning the import of captive birds as pets.

Governments around the world are nervously monitoring borders, testing arriving wild birds and clamping down on the import and movement of birds and poultry, with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia among the latest to announce special measures.

Massive culls of birds in affected areas is one preventative step. Croatia, following Asian countries, has now killed at least 27,000 poultry.

There has been a spate of fresh flu cases in Asia too.

China said all its outbreaks had been contained, including another new one among farm geese in the eastern province, Anhui.

“Although bird flu cases have been found in some villages in five provinces because of the spread of migratory birds, the whole situation is under control. There are no human cases,” Xinhua news agency quoted Health Minister Gao Qiang as saying.

He said the world’s most populous nation, where billions of poultry live close to farmers’ homes, was monitoring effectively, reporting transparently and had adopted strict quarantine measures.

Million monitors
In Thailand the government reactivated a network of almost a million health monitors to try to halt the spread of the disease after new outbreaks in poultry were confirmed in five provinces.

India tested blood samples from 10 dead migratory birds but said it had no known cases of bird flu yet despite 10,000 tests.

The Asian Development Bank says even a relatively mild pandemic could cost Asia up to $110 billion from the effects of reduced consumption, investment and trade.

The World Health Organization says H5N1 has so far infected 121 people in four southeast Asian nations, killing one in two.

Most catch it by handling sick birds or their droppings.

The European Union said consumers faced no risk from eggs or poultry after flu fears slashed demand.

However, experts say the world is overdue for a human flu pandemic, which emerges roughly every three decades on average.

Pandemics hit in 1918 -- killing up to 40 million people globally -- and again in 1957 and 1968.

Hong Kong has experienced two H5N1 outbreaks in the past. In 1997, in the first recorded instance of human infection, it infected 18 people and killed six.

Experts say detecting and controlling the virus could prove a Herculean task in Africa, a continent with poor infrastructure and limited resources.