BOMBAY, India – India and France both confirmed their first outbreak of the deadly strain of bird flu among fowl, and on Sunday health officials and farm workers in western India began slaughtering a half-million birds to check the spread of the disease.
Tens of thousands of chickens have died from bird flu in recent weeks in western India, and people suffering from flu-like symptoms in the region were to be tested for the infection, officials said.
Saturday's announcement from France and India came as other nations fought to contain outbreaks of the H5N1 strain, which has spread from Asia amid fears of a worldwide flu pandemic if the virus mutates into a form that is easily transmitted between humans. Bird flu has killed at least 91 people — most of them in Asia — since 2003, according to World Health Organization figures.
In western India, officials began slaughtering 500,000 birds in a 1.5-mile radius around the poultry farms in the town of Navapur where the confirmed cases were detected, said Anees Ahmed, the minister for animal husbandry in the state of Maharashtra.
Heavy earth movers were being used to bury the carcasses, he said. Top health officials would meet with heads of some 52 big poultry farms in the area through Sunday, he said.
"They have to be told that they must begin destroying their stocks of chicken," said Ahmed.
An unknown number of people in the area were reportedly suffering from flu and fever, and scientists were to start testing them on Sunday, said Milind Gore, deputy director of the National Institute of Virology in Pune.
At least 30,000 chickens have died in and around Navapur, a major poultry-farming region of Maharashtra, over the past two weeks, Ahmed said.
Police have cordoned off the area around the poultry farms, Ahmed said.
An area of 3 to 5 miles around the cordoned region will be under surveillance, and all poultry not killed will be vaccinated against bird flu, the health ministry said in a statement.
Indian chicken farmers were devastated by the announcement.
"All of us will have to start again from scratch, and I don't know how many of us will survive," Ghulam Vhora, a member of the Navapur Poultry Farmers Association, said Saturday. "Most farmers cannot believe the news and are hoping the lab tests confirming bird flu are wrong."
France confirmed its first case of the H5N1 strain in a wild duck found dead in a bird reserve some 20 miles northeast of Lyon, France's third-largest city, the Agriculture Ministry said. All fowl have been ordered indoors or vaccinated there.
"There's a little bit of panic because we don't know what to do," said Madeleine Monnet, 60, in the town of Joyeux, where the diseased bird was discovered. "Here everybody has a little bit of fowl — chickens or ducks — for their personal consumption."
Countries from Europe to Asia were struggling with their outbreaks.
In Indonesia, another man died from the H5N1 virus, bringing the nation's death toll to 19, a Health Ministry official confirmed Saturday.
The man, who died Feb. 10, had frequent contact with poultry, said Hariadi Wibisono, a health ministry official.
German and Austrian authorities ordered all poultry and fowl kept indoors, and in Germany, 28 wild birds were diagnosed with the deadly strain on the same northern island where the country's first cases were detected earlier this week.
Egypt's agriculture minister, meanwhile, said Saturday that the number of cases of bird flu in the country are not high enough to warrant large-scale slaughter of birds, but that authorities will act accordingly if the disease spreads.
There have been conflicting reports about the number of H5N1 cases found in Egypt, but the government said Friday there had been seven cases in three provinces.
"The disease is not at a level that leads to getting rid of large numbers" of fowl, Amin Abaza told the Arabic-language Al-Arabiya satellite channel. "There are known international measures that are taken. Poultry within a certain radius get culled."