Twelve chickens dead from bird flu in Russia

According to a senior regional health official, another region in European Russia has confirmed an outbreak of the deadly bird flu virus H5N1.

This latest outbreak of bird flu in Russia has apparently killed 12 hens at a private dacha, and authorities there have been forced to cull 53 ducks and impose a strict quarantine.

The outbreak occurred in Tambov, 400 km (250 miles) southeast of Moscow, last week, and according to tests the H5N1 avian flu strain which can infect humans, was confirmed.

The H5N1 avian flu strain has killed more than 60 people in four Asian countries since emerging in 2003 in South Korea.

The fear on the part of health experts is that it could mutate into a strain that could spread from human to human, triggering a worldwide pandemic and killing millions.

The virus which is carried by migratory birds, has now moved west as far as European Russia, Turkey and Romania.

Already countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa have taken steps to try to stop migrating birds mixing with domestic fowl, and Croatia is culling more poultry after finding two dead wild swans suspected of having an avian flu strain.

According to Mate Brstilo, who heads the national committee for bird flu prevention, the swans were from the same flock as the initial cases and were confirmed with the same H5-type virus.

Test results were expected this week on the six swans found last week, which should determine if they had H5N1.

Croatian authorities culled some 13,000 birds at the weekend in 500 farms near the pond where the first dead swans were found.

It will now cull poultry around a nearby pond where the latest swans were found.

Accordingly, the spate of H5N1 cases or suspected cases in Europe in recent weeks has put authorities on alert at ports, airports and areas where migratory birds flock.

The 25-member European Union, the world's biggest importer of wild fowl, is all set to ban imports of live captive and pet birds after a South American parrot died from H5N1 in Britain while in quarantine with birds from Taiwan.

At present the European Commission is about to propose a temporary ban to veterinary experts.

Suspected cases have prompted authorities in Malta to seal a ship and quarantine the crew but birds on the vessel were later thought to have died of natural causes.

Fernand Sauer, director of public health and risk assessment at the European Commission, says confusion between different types of influenza was to blame for the exaggerated fear in Europe about the risks, which had now reached the level of hysteria.

While authorities across the continent are on high alert, some cases have just been scares.

Albanian veterinarians who dissected a migratory bird that dropped dead out of the sky, found lead shot not flu in its body.

It now seems that pigeons in Hungary died from sunflower seed poisoning, however a dead swan on a lake bordering Austria is being tested for flu.

So far, H5N1 has infected domestic poultry and wild birds mostly in Asia, prompting massive culls there, but it has also moved from animals to humans in Asia.

A World Health Organization official from Asia, Shigeru Omi, says Europe has a good chance of stopping H5N1 reaching its tame bird population because it has reacted faster and more openly.

A report that China would close its borders if it detected human-to-human transmission of bird flu unsettled Hong Kong stocks with shares in hotels, retailers and airlines sliding.

Countries that have already suffered from bird flu outbreaks are redoubling their efforts to stop its return.

North Korea says it has mechanisms in place to eliminate "any slight symptoms in time", using its experience from an outbreak of a different strain earlier this year when more than 200,000 chickens were destroyed and 1.1 million poultry vaccinated.

South Korea is also under a bird flu alert, issued earlier this month and targeted in the main at arriving migratory birds.

Between December 2003 and March 2004, more than 5 million birds were slaughtered to halt the spread of an H5N2 strain, and as many as 400 South Korean poultry farms were affected.

An Australian firm has said it is confident a vaccine it is testing in humans could protect against a pandemic form of the H5N1 virus unless it undergoes major genetic changes.

CSL Ltd, the world's largest maker of blood plasma products, has begun human vaccine trials using different dosages and hopes to know results by February.

Meanwhile a U.N. agency is sending experts to Indonesia to run house to house searches for infected chickens.

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