EU considers a ban on the import of live wild birds

After confirmation that a parrot in Britain died of a virulent strain of avian flu, Britain has called for a ban on the importation of live birds.

The H5N1 strain killed the south American parrot that was held in quarantine with birds from Taiwan, all of which were culled.

Tests showed the strain to be a close match to that found in ducks in China earlier this year.

A spokesman in Brussels for the European Commission said the EU administration would rule on a ban after EU farm ministers and the bloc's food security committee discuss it, and make a decision shortly.

Since it surfaced two years ago in South Korea H5N1 has been spread by wild birds to Russia, Turkey and Romania, whose Danube delta is a haven for migrating fowl.

Dead swans found at a Croatian pond, where a cull has taken place this weekend, are also being checked, as are birds from Greece and Macedonia further south in the Balkans.

A less virulent bird flu is common but H5N1 kills a high proportion of birds that catch it and has so far claimed over 60 human lives in Asia, most of them in Vietnam and Thailand; it is now endemic in poultry across much of Asia, and can be caught by people after prolonged and close contact with infected birds.

Scientists fear it may mix with a human flu strain, pass between people and trigger a lethal pandemic around the world.

China says it will seal its borders, whatever the economic cost, if it finds a single case of human-to-human transmission there.

Russia says it has found more bird flu in the Urals and is investigating a suspected outbreak close to the Kazakh border.

Wild birds are carrying the virus as they fly south for winter and many countries have already taken steps to stop them mixing with domestic fowl.

Some, where H5N1 is confirmed, have followed the lead shown by South Korea in 2003 and started vast culls of domestic fowl.

Others, in an attempt to prevent contagion, have banned imports from suspect areas, prohibited live-bird markets, ordered fowl kept indoors for now, and stockpiled Tamiflu, an antiviral drug that could help stem infection depending on how H5N1 may mutate in humans.

In the Gulf, Abu Dhabi has urged owners to cull their home-raised poultry to prevent an outbreak of bird flu.

But the death of the parrot has highlighted another possible route for transmission, the trading of wild birds as pets.

German charity Pro Wildlife, one of numerous organisations that have long sought a ban on the trade on animal welfare grounds, says that the EU is the world's biggest importer of wild birds.

Germany backs a worldwide ban but only birds from flu-stricken areas are barred at present, and Britain has followed suit.

Junior environment minister Ben Bradshaw expects EU partners to agree.

Maltese officials sealed a ship after dead birds were found on board the Limassol-registered Nordsuk ship which had come from Taiwan.

After a weekend scare in Sweden when a string of dead ducks were found, authorities said none had been infected with H5N1.

The board of agriculture points out a quarter of wild ducks carry a milder form of influenza virus at this time of year.

Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche AG has come under pressure to pump up output of Tamiflu, while Taiwan says with or without a patent, it is ready to start making its own version.

As migrating birds head further south, eastern Africa is seen as the next area at high risk.

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