Iran Confirms First Cases of Bird Flu

TEHRAN (Reuters)–Iran became the latest country to confirm cases of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu on Tuesday after wild swans tested positive for the virus that has also hit several neighboring countries and killed 91 people worldwide.

Experts had said it was only a matter of time before H5N1 broke out in Iran–a wintering place for wild fowl who may be carriers. Its neighbors Iraq–Azerbaijan–and Turkey had already reported outbreaks.

"International laboratory results confirm that some wild swans died from bird flu," a statement from Iran’s veterinary organization said.

Tested samples came from some wild swans in a flock of 135 found dead in wetlands near the Caspian Sea port of Bandar Anzali on Iran’s northern coast. The Azeri outbreak reported last week was in birds on the Caspian Sea coast.

Mohammad Youssefi–director of the Union of Chicken Meat Farmers of Tehran–said the Iranian poultry industry had 600,000 direct employees and added that as many as three million people were dependent on it.

Late last year some union officials expressed concerns about how to compensate for a full-scale industrial cull but Youssefi said the industry was properly insured.

"Parliament has approved a bill on agricultural products and insurance–meaning full compensation will be paid in the case of any damage," he told Reuters.

Iran’started a voluntary cull on its western borders after H5N1 was detected in Turkey. Hossein Hassani–the head of Iran’s veterinary organization–said Monday that 157,348 fowl had been slaughtered by then.

The virus has already killed at least 91 people in Asia and the Middle East–according to the World Health Organization. The figure includes four deaths in Turkey and one in Iraq.

Experts fear H5N1 may mutate into a form that can spread between people and cause a pandemic that could kill millions.

They are trying to warn people about the dangers of the virus that is contracted through direct contact with infected birds–but are struggling in countries such as Nigeria where people think nothing of touching dead poultry with their bare hands.

Groups of international experts were in Nigeria–the first African country to confirm an H5N1 outbreak–to ensure that authorities there were ready to detect human cases of bird flu. No human cases have been found there yet.

As the virus spread further in Nigeria–experts showed authorities what types of preventive measures to take including closing live-poultry markets and restricting poultry movemen’s.

"Above all it is an animal disease and if one wants to avoid there being any human cases–the virus must really be stamped out in the bird population," World Health Organization spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told reporters in Geneva.

In the European Union–which confirmed its first cases of H5N1 in wild birds over the weekend–Greece said tests on a man’suspected of having bird flu had come back negative.

Austria was awaiting test results on samples from two swans that it strongly suspected had been infected with H5N1. It had sent the samples to the EU’s reference laboratory in England. If confirmed–they would be Austria’s first cases of the virus.

Germany introduced a ban on keeping poultry outdoors to protect domestic flocks against contracting avian flu from migrating birds. Migrating birds returning to Europe after wintering in Africa could soon spread the virus further into Europe–the FAO said.

"We need to be aware that there’s a real risk for Europe when the birds migrate northwards this spring," Samuel Jutzi–director of the FAO’s Animal Production and Health Division–told reporters in Rome.

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