French officials awaited confirmation Thursday on whether three people on France's Indian Ocean island of Reunion are infected with the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus.
Preliminary tests for H5N1 conducted earlier this week on the island were positive, but French authorities were awaiting results of follow-up examinations by the Pasteur Institute in Paris.
Results from there for at least one of the three patients were expected on Thursday, Health Minister Xavier Bertrand said. Bird flu is difficult to diagnose properly in preliminary tests, and false positives are not uncommon.
The three were part of a group that traveled to Thailand, where they visited a bird park and had close contact with birds, French officials said.
Separately, France has decided to devote an extra Ђ177 million (US$213 million) to double its 2005 spending on planning against a feared human pandemic of bird flu, the health minister told parliament Wednesday night. France's preparations include stockpiling ant-viral drugs, among other measures.
In all, from 2004 through 2006, France will have spent more that Ђ700 million (US$844 million) on "protecting the population against the risk of a pandemic," the minister added.
"We must prepare ourselves for a pandemic even if it has still not broken out. We have entered a new era where governments are forcing themselves to anticipate the risk rather than reacting as best as they can after a pandemic has spread," he said. Health experts have warned that the virus could mutate into a form that can be easily transmitted between humans and trigger a global pandemic.
French authorities said a 43-year-old man was first hospitalized on Reunion island with a fever and strong headaches Saturday, three days after spending a week in Thailand. He was under observation and was receiving anti-viral treatments.
Nineteen others who took the same trip were questioned about their health. Among them, two had flu symptoms, and preliminary tests for them were also positive for H5N1. They, too, were given anti-viral treatments but at home, the French Health Ministry said, reports the AP. I.L.