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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 February 2006, 17:47 GMT
Bird flu 'more likely to hit UK'
Swans thought to be infected with the virus
Infected wild swans have been found in some countries
Britain is increasingly likely to be hit by bird flu, Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw has warned.

The disease has so far been confirmed in six European Union countries, including Italy, Greece and Germany.

Mr Bradshaw said this made an outbreak "more likely" but not "inevitable" and insisted the government would not close the countryside.

EU experts are urging tougher control measures to prevent a spread among poultry on commercial farms.

Exclusion zones

Greece, Italy, Slovenia and Germany have confirmed outbreaks of H5N1 - the deadliest strain of bird flu - but test results are still awaited on virus samples sent by Austria and Hungary to the EU's laboratory in Weybridge, Surrey.

All the outbreaks discovered in the EU so far have involved wild birds, believed to be migratory swans.

Measures to isolate the areas where infected wild birds are found are already in place.

Ben Bradshaw
It is not nearly as easy to spread as foot-and-mouth, which is spread on the air
Ben BradshawAnimal health minister

But there are concerns about the difficulty of controlling the spread of H5N1 if and when "domestic" birds - mainly poultry on farms - catch the virus.

On Tuesday, the EU's Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health approved a 1.3m payment for governments to help set up early-warning surveillance programmes.

The UK government has drawn up plans to set up one-mile exclusion zones if any wild bird is found to be infected with H5N1.

Inside these, all poultry movements would be halted. If any was found to be infected, the entire flock would face being culled.

'Alarmist headlines'

Mr Bradshaw said: "The movements that would be affected would be those of poultry, not of human beings.

"Some of the rather alarmist headlines that have been around today about the countryside closing and footpaths closing are simply wrong."

He added: "This is not anything like foot-and-mouth as a disease.

"It spreads through bird faeces. It is not nearly as easy to spread as foot-and-mouth, which is spread on the air, and it is not nearly as virulent."

Mr Bradshaw also said the government was not asking people to keep poultry indoors, as was happening in some countries.

See the swans found dead in Germany


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