Colombia finds no new cases of bird flu, urges neighbors to lift import bans

Colombian authorities have tested 18,000 chickens at more than 200 farms across the country since the discovery of a mild strain of bird flu here in early October and have not detected any new cases, officials said Wednesday.

Agriculture Minister Andres Felipe Arias said authorities were also monitoring areas where migratory birds are known to converge after Canada reported an outbreak among its wild birds.

"The migratory birds travel from the northern hemisphere to rest for some time in Colombia and, due to the volatility of the virus, there is a risk that our domestic chickens could get infected," Arias told reporters.

"We cannot let down our guard on any front. We must be rigorous and strict, checking farms, sheds and lakes where bird from the north stay," he said. Arias added that three poultry distribution centers in Bogota had been shut down due to poor hygiene conditions.

Colombian authorities on Oct. 10 announced they had detected cases of bird flu among chickens at three farms in western Tolima state. Officials said it was not the deadly H5N1 strain that has hit Asia and, since 2003, killed at least 62 people. Most of those deaths have been linked to close contact with infected birds.

Nonetheless, Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela halted imports of poultry from Colombia as a precaution. A Colombian poultry association has protested, saying the other Andean countries are blowing the situation out of proportion.

Arias said Colombian and Ecuadorean officials were to hold talks on Thursday to explore a possible lifting of the ban. "Commerce (in poultry products) should be reactivated because the truth _ the real truth _ is that there isn't any problem," he said.

A Venezuelan delegation is expected to visit Colombia next week to examine the government's response to the bird flu outbreak and discuss preventive measures. Colombia exports more than US$13 million (Ђ10.8 million) worth of poultry products every year.

Experts worry that the lethal H5N1 bird flu virus sweeping through bird flocks in Asia and pockets of eastern Europe could mutate into a human flu that could kill millions.

Elsewhere in South America, Argentina's animal and agriculture agency on Oct. 25 suspended imports of poultry products from all countries that have reported bird flu cases.

"We have to do everything in our reach to protect the country from the entry of the virus," agency spokesman Marcelo Valente said Wednesday. "We've recently taken measures to strengthen all areas of control."

Valente said the countries on the list of those blocked by Argentina include Colombia and Canada, where a strain of bird flu also has been detected. The measures are not expected to have a major impact in Argentina, which produces most of its chicken domestically, AP reported. V.A.

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Author`s name: Editorial Team