France detects H5 bird flu virus on turkey farm

France has detected cases of bird flu on a turkey farm, but it was not immediately clear whether it was the deadly strain, the agriculture minister said Friday. The turkeys were found to have the H5 virus, but Dominique Bussereau said more tests were needed to determine if the case involved H5N1. If confirmed, it would be the first time the strain had spread to poultry stocks in France, the EU's largest poultry producer.

France has some 200,000 farms that raise 900 million birds each year. In 2004, the latest year for which figures were available, the French poultry sector generated more than Ђ 3 billion (US$3.59 billion) in revenues, or more than 20 percent of total EU production in the sector. On Thursday, authorities sealed off a farm with more than 11,000 turkeys in the southeastern Ain region, the same area where France 's first two cases of the deadly virus, in two wild ducks, were confirmed. Surviving turkeys at the farm were slaughtered.

"The suspicion that we had yesterday, which brought us to first cull the animals and then destroy them, was unfortunately confirmed this morning," Bussereau told France-2 television. "What we know, compared to yesterday, is that this is the H5 virus," he said. "But there have been other cases on the edge of Europe that were H5 but not N1."

Results of lab tests to determine whether the strain was H5N1 were expected later Friday, Bussereau said. Last week, the government put in place special surveillance measures with protection zones near where the dead duck was found in the town of Joyeux . Among other measures, vehicles were being checked to ensure that no poultry or other captive birds leave the region.

"What worries us," Bussereau said, "is that this farm ... is located in the protection zone that we had put in place for the first duck in Joyeux." The region is dotted with ponds that attract migrant birds and is home to the famed Bresse chickens.

Aside from the disease, authorities are also battling fears that a protracted bird flu crisis could devastate the industry. Poultry sales have plunged 25-30 percent since the first case was reported last week. A veterinarian who suspected bird flu at the turkey farm in the town of Versailleux raised the alarm Thursday after a high death rate was observed, the ministry said. A local official said up to 90 percent of the turkeys died. The official, not allowed to speak publicly on the issue, asked not to be identified by name.

The farm's residents were forbidden to leave unless necessary. A system to disinfect vehicles was being set up and protective equipment furnished to the farmer and officials working in the zone, the ministry said. "We have crossed a line, a farm (has been) affected," said Ain regional prefect Michel Fuzeau on France-Info radio, urging poultry raisers to take an additional step of putting out disinfectant in foot bins at the region's farms.

Last week, the French government ordered all domestic birds indoors or, in a few regions, vaccinated in a bid to halt bird flu. Violators could face fines of up to 750 (US$895). Scientists fear the deadly strain, which has spread to 10 European countries, could mutate into a form that is easily transmitted between humans, sparking a pandemic, reports the AP.

N.U.