Thousands of Romanian Birds Killed to Halt Flu Spread

Authorities killed thousands of domestic fowl in eastern Romania (search) on Sunday seeking to prevent the spread of a deadly strain of bird flu that has decimated flocks and killed dozens of people in Asia.

Officials said they were also awaiting test results from a British laboratory on samples from birds found dead in Maliuc, a village about 20 miles from Ceamurlia de Jos in the Danube River delta, where the H5N1 (search) virus was first detected in Romania.

Authorities around the world fear the H5N1 strain could mutate into a form that can be passed among people, leading to a flu pandemic that some say could potentially kill millions. So far, most of the 60 human deaths involving H5N1 have been linked to victims' contact with birds.

Experts say migrating birds have spread the disease since it appeared in Southeast Asia (search) two years ago. The strain has already appeared in Turkey, and the European Union has banned all poultry imports from Turkey and Romania.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, on a tour of Southeast Asia to discuss the disease, said it would be daunting to identify and contain an outbreak if the virus mutated to a form easily spread among people. It could skip across borders and oceans, killing millions and crippling entire nations.

"Can we create a network of surveillance sufficient enough to find the spark when it happens, to get there fast enough?" he said before leaving Vietnam for Indonesia, where he planned to meet with officials Monday. "The chances of that happening are not good."

Turkish authorities said Sunday that the H5N1 outbreak in the western village of Kiziksa had been contained, while initial lab tests conducted after about 1,000 chickens died in eastern Turkey showed no signs of bird flu. Authorities were on alert across Turkey, however, warning that migratory birds could still spread the flu.

About 10,000 birds have been destroyed in that country.

Romanian officials said all domestic birds in Ceamurlia de Jos were killed and the village was being disinfected, but the area would remain under quarantine for 21 days before it could be declared free of the virus. Authorities said they expected to finish culling birds in Maliuc on Sunday.

Officials in protective suits sprayed disinfectant on people's yards and inside homes in both villages, including kitchens and other areas that might have come into contact with infected birds.

Both Ceamurlia de Jos and Maliuc are in the quarantined eastern province of Dobrogea, which contains a large nature reserve where millions of migratory birds have been arriving from Russia on their way to Africa.

All cars, trucks and trains traveling between Dobrogea and the rest of Romania are being disinfected and authorities are monitoring domestic birds in neighboring areas, Agriculture Minister Gheorghe Flutur said.

The two villages were under even stricter regulations, with police restricting access. Authorities have also banned farmers in surrounding areas from leaving birds and animals outside, for fear they could come in contact with migratory birds.

Flutur said anyone not keeping domestic birds confined could face fines. He said he flew over the region by helicopter and saw that some residents were not complying with the order.

About three-fourths of Romania's estimated 100 million birds live on small farms, which makes it more difficult to fight bird flu, he said. Flutur said, however, that tests showed the virus had not spread.

Although H5N1 is highly contagious among birds, it is difficult for humans to contract. Still, stamping out the flu 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, sparking a human flu pandemic.

In 1918, an influenza pandemic believed to have originated in birds killed more than 40 million people around the world. Subsequent pandemics in 1957 and 1968 had lower death rates but caused disruptions.