Feared Bird Flu Strain Confirmed in Romania

The deadly bird flu strain that has devastated flocks and killed dozens of people in Asia has appeared in eastern Europe, with laboratory tests confirming it has been found in birds in Romania, the Agriculture Ministry (search) said Saturday.

The ministry said British laboratory tests confirmed that the virus detected in wild birds found dead in the Danube delta was the H5N1 strain. Authorities around the world fear could mutate into a form that can be passed among people, leading to a global pandemic which some say could potentially kill millions.

The announcement came a week after H5N1 was discovered on a farm in Turkey, prompting the European Union to ban poultry imports from both Turkey and Romania.

Although H5N1 is highly contagious among birds, it is difficult for humans to contract. Still, it has killed about 60 people in Asia, mostly poultry farmers infected directly by birds.

Romanian Agriculture Minister Gheorghe Flutur (search) called for calm, and placed the country's eastern region of Dobrogea under quarantine, requiring all vehicles entering and leaving the areas to be disinfected. Checkpoints were set up on roads entering the counties, and the region was banned from exporting eggs and poultry meat from the area.

The region includes the Danube and Black Sea counties of Tulcea and Constanta, where 1.5 million people live. The two lake-filled counties are an important stop for migratory birds from Asia.

"We are doing what needs to be done," Flutur told reporters, adding that birds in another four neighboring counties were placed under surveillance. "There should be no panic. We are proceeding the way they proceeded in other countries."

The area around the country's remote Ceamurlia de Jos village, where bird flu was first found in Romania, was also under isolation, and authorities were culling thousands of birds as a precaution. More than 12,000 birds had been killed in the area by late Friday.

Flutur urged residents to keep their domestic birds indoors to prevent them from coming into contact with wild birds. He stressed there had been no reports of any people contracting the virus.

A spokesman for Britain's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (search) confirmed the tests conducted at a lab in Surrey, south of London (search), had determined the Romanian virus was the H5N1 strain.

But he said further tests were needed to trace the origin of the virus and determine how similar it was to those found in Turkey and Asia.

"It would help us know what it is and where in the world it's come from," the spokesman said, declining to be identified in keeping with government policy.

He said those results would be available later in the weekend.

In Romania, the agriculture minister said people should continue to eat poultry, but should take precautions of cooking it at over 70 Celsius (158 F).

Residents appeared to take the news calmly, with some saying they had expected the worst since the news broke more than a week ago that bird flu was suspected in the village of Ceamurlia de Jos. Despite Flutur's assurances, residents have stopped eating poultry.

On Friday, the World Health Organization (search) moved to calm fears by stressing that the risk of people getting infected is very low.

Stamping out the outbreaks in poultry swiftly is important for human health because the further the virus is allowed to spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate into a form that passes easily to and between people, sparking a human flu pandemic.