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Last Updated: Monday, 20 February 2006, 12:42 GMT
EU ministers debate bird flu risk
Geese are moved indoors in Bulgaria
Many farmers have been ordered to move their birds indoors
European Union agriculture ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss ways to fight the spread of bird flu.

France is the latest European nation to report the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus in the past week, joining Italy, Austria, Germany, Slovenia and Greece.

Poultry farmers in Germany, France and the Netherlands have been ordered to keep flocks indoors as a precaution.

Elsewhere, a mass cull of birds is under way in the western Indian state of Maharashtra after H5N1 was found.

The lethal H5N1 strain has killed at least 90 people since 2003.

It can be caught by humans who handle infected birds, but it is not yet known to have passed from one person to another.

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Scientists have warned that if the virus mutates it could create a pandemic that could kill millions of people.

EU agriculture ministers are expected to discuss measures including giving birds a preventive vaccination against bird flu.

The potential economic impact on the poultry industry and the issue of compensation for farmers will also be on the agenda.

Unprotected

BBC Europe correspondent Jonny Dymond says the situation is particularly perilous in the Netherlands, where the poultry industry has only just recovered from a 2003 bout of bird flu which led to the slaughter of nearly 31 million birds.

A dead swan on the island of Ruegen, off north-eastern Germany
Scientists fear migrating birds may spread the virus further

Both the Dutch and French governments have applied to the European Commission for permission to vaccinate some of their flocks.

This could be sensitive, our correspondent says, because the Commission fears the relatively complex vaccination procedure may leave some birds unprotected and so at risk of contracting and spreading the disease.

French Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau has said he will support Italy in asking the EU for financial support for the poultry industry, the AFP news agency reports.

He has urged French consumers to support farmers by continuing to eat chickens.

France, Europe's biggest poultry producer, confirmed on Saturday the H5N1 strain of bird flu in a duck found dead last week in the east of the country.

The UK government has said farmers in Britain do not yet need to move their poultry indoors, despite the spread of bird flu to France.

Vets are testing nine dead swans, reported by members of the public at different sites across the UK, for signs of infection.

Outside the European Union, cases of the H5N1 strain have been confirmed in Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Croatia, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan.

In western India, the lethal strain was found among thousands of dead chickens at a farm on Saturday.

Vets are to cull up to 500,000 chickens in the area around the Maharashtra farm. Health officials are testing eight people for possible infection, but no human cases have been detected so far.

In Iran, tests on more than 100 dead swans found in wetlands in the northern province of Gilan have also shown the presence of H5N1.

The Egyptian authorities have closed a zoo in Cairo and ordered a cull of its birds after H5N1 was confirmed in ducks, turkeys and Chinese geese there.

The government has appealed to citizens to dispose properly of any dead birds they find, rather than throwing them in the street or the River Nile.



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