Signs of further spread of deadly H5N1 strain as China, Russia, Romania report new cases

Preliminary tests on fowl from a region south of Moscow where hundreds of birds died suddenly detected the H5N1 strain of bird flu, Russia's Agriculture Ministry said, bolstering the sobering signs that the dreaded virus might be spreading across a swath from Siberia to the shores of the Mediterranean.

The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization warned Wednesday of a marked increase in chances that bird flu would move to the Middle East and vulnerable Africa as well, while the European Union announced plans for an exercise simulating a human flu pandemic to improve readiness in case the bird virus mutates to form a strain dangerous to people.

In Asia, crucible of the virus, China on Wednesday reported a fresh outbreak of H5N1. The official Xinhua news agency said 2,600 birds in the northern grasslands had died of the disease. It did not give details on when the dead birds were found, and it sought to reassure the public that the outbreak was contained.

The Asian H5N1 strain was detected in Siberia in July. Migratory birds flying over the region from elsewhere in Asia were blamed for the outbreak. The virus had been registered in six districts in Siberia and the Urals region.

Preliminary genetic tests now have found an H5N1 bird flu virus in samples of birds taken from a village south of Moscow. Further tests are needed to confirm the finding and determine whether the H5N1 strain is the same one that has decimated flocks in Asia since 2003. If so, it would mark the first appearance of the virus in European Russia, west of the Ural Mountains.

Officials said 220 of 3,000 domestic birds in the village of Yandovka had died. Birds on the six affected farms were being destroyed, and local officials have decided to kill all poultry in the village. In addition, a quarantine was established around Yandovka. Villagers were prohibited from leaving except in dire emergencies.

More than 200,000 people in the region were given standard flu vaccinations, the ITAR-Tass news agency said. Such shots are given to prevent normal flu so that if the person gets infected with the bird virus, there is no human flu strain inside the body to mix with and create a dangerous hybrid. The H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed 60 people in Asia, but no one in Russia has been diagnosed with H5N1, officials said.

In Hungary, officials announced Wednesday that preliminary experiments with an H5N1 vaccine indicate it works. Health Minister Jenoe Racz said he and dozens of others were inoculated three weeks ago and that tests showed that antibodies to the virus had appeared in his blood.

However, the World Health Organization said it was unaware of the details of the Hungarian findings and was unable to comment on their validity or whether the vaccine _ even if it works _ would be viable.

Scientists in the U.S. already have reported positive results from tests on their own H5N1 vaccine, but so far have not been able to make the vaccine a practical option because it uses too much of a scarce ingredient and requires two doses to work.

The EU, meanwhile, was trying to assess whether the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu had spread into Macedonia and Greece. H5N1 already has been confirmed in two villages in Romania and in nearby Turkey.

Global health experts are keeping a close eye on bird flu because they fear the lethal Asian H5N1 strain could mutate and trigger a human flu pandemic. Asia is considered the greatest threat, but the FAO expressed fear that Africa was poorly prepared to respond to an outbreak of bird flu.

He expressed most concern about eastern Africa, where veterinary services may have greater problems in containing the virus. The more the virus there is circulating, the more opportunities there are for mutations that could create a global human epidemic capable of killing millions, AP reports.


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