India Begins Mass Bird Slaughter

Health officials and farm workers in protective gloves and masks slaughtered thousands of chickens Sunday in western India a day after the country's first reported outbreak of deadly bird flu.

Officials near the affected area reported that a 27-year-old poultry farm owner had died of bird-flu-like symptoms. Laboratory tests were pending and the case remained unconfirmed.

In Italy, a dead wild duck and six wild swans tested positive for the highly virulent H5N1 strain of bird flu, bringing the country's number of confirmed cases to 16, the Italian Health Ministry said Sunday.

Italian poultry sales have dropped 70 percent despite government efforts to isolate outbreaks and reassure consumers and poultry farmers warned that, without state aid, thousands would be out of business within a week.

German authorities also ordered a limited slaughter of poultry on a Baltic Sea island to prevent the spread of H5N1 from wild birds to farm stocks, an official said Sunday, as Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the region.

Officials were still assessing how many of the island's 400,000 domestic birds would be killed. Germany recorded its first cases of H5N1 among swans and a hawk found dead Tuesday on the island of Ruegen.

The Indian government announced an aid package for farmers Sunday following confirmation that at least some of 30,000 chickens that had died in Navapur, a major poultry farming region in western Maharashtra state, over the past week were infected with H5N1.

Authorities stressed no human cases had been confirmed as they awaited test results from the poultry farm owner who died.

"At this juncture we can only suspect that the cause of his death could be bird flu," Surat district officer Vatsala Vasudev told the Press Trust of India news agency.

Anees Ahmed, the state minister for animal husbandry, said "there have been no (human) deaths" from bird flu but did not elaborate.

Eight people in the area also were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms and were being tested, but authorities said it was just a precaution.

"There is no indication they have any symptoms of bird flu," said Maharashtra Chief Secretary Prem Kumar, the state's most senior bureaucrat.

Some 500,000 birds will be slaughtered within a 1.5-mile radius to check the spread of the virus in the area, more than 250 miles northeast of Bombay.

More than 50,000 chickens have been killed in Navapur since early Sunday, Ahmed told The Associated Press. Top health officials were telling the heads of 52 big poultry farms that they must begin destroying their chickens.

India exports some $84.4 million worth of poultry and eggs annually, mostly to Europe and Japan and the Middle East. The past year has seen orders rise as countries such as Indonesia struggle to control bird flu. Japan opened its market to Indian poultry in November.

Nepal's government on Sunday banned poultry products from India. Bangladesh ordered increased security surveillance along its 2,500-mile border with India, fearing rampant smuggling could let in bird flu.

The majority of bird flu's human victims have lived in Asia, but recent deaths have been reported in Iraq and Turkey, according to the World Health Organization. Most human cases of bird flu have been through direct contact with sick birds, it says.

Scientists fear the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus could mutate into a form that passes easily between humans and spark a global flu pandemic.

In Romania, preliminary tests indicated that the bird flu virus has infected birds in two more villages near the Black Sea, a region where the virus has already been detected, officials said Sunday.

Agriculture and health ministers from Arab League countries will meet in Cairo next month to coordinate efforts to prevent the spread of bird flu, League Secretary-General Amr Moussa said Sunday.