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India Searches for Humans Exposed to Bird Flu

Indian health officials went door-to-door Monday searching for people sickened by the deadly bird flu strain, while hundreds of German troops disposed of dead wild birds in a desperate attempt to contain the fast-moving disease in Europe.

In Brussels and Belgium, European Union agriculture ministers discussed ways to combat bird flu — such as by vaccinating poultry — as the disease spread to half-a-dozen EU nations.

Malaysia announced the deaths of 40 chickens from the lethal H5N1 strain, the first reported cases of the virus in the country in more than a year.

With India conducting a mass slaughter of birds for a second day Monday, plumes of black smoke filled the air as farmers burned dead chickens in the now-deserted poultry farms around Navapur, more than 250 miles northeast of Bombay.

Local officials near the affected area reported that a 27-year-old poultry farm owner died of bird flu-like symptoms, though tests had yet to determine the cause of death. Samples from at least eight other people hospitalized for flu-like symptoms near Navapur also were being tested, and results were expected later this week.

Inspectors visited homes and farms surrounding Navapur, a town of 30,000 people, searching for signs of illness and making sure even chickens being raised at private homes were killed and properly disposed of.

"It's like a war — they come in completely covered with masks and goggles and check if the carcasses are disposed properly," said Ghulam Vhora, a Navapur poultry farmers' association.

Since early Sunday, more than 200,000 chickens have been slaughtered around Navapur, a major poultry farming region where the H5N1 strain of bird flu was found in some of 30,000 dead chickens. Checkpoints also have been set up to stop people carrying poultry out of the area.

Heavy earth movers also dug deep pits at some poultry farms. Workers already dumped more than 200,000 bird carcasses along with the gloves, goggles and blue gowns used by health teams. The pits were coated with chemicals, including disinfectant, before being filled in.

The government now plans to slaughter some 700,000 birds within a 1.5-mile radius of the outbreak, and 48 poultry farms will be emptied and shut for three months.

There are concerns the Indian poultry industry could suffer badly. India exports some $84 million worth of poultry and eggs annually to Europe, Japan and the Middle East.

"There must be no movement of poultry out of Navapur," said O.P. Tiwari, a health officer in neighboring Surat district.

Since 2003, the H5N1 virus has devastated poultry and killed at least 92 people, mostly in Asia, according to the World Health Organization. Most human cases have been linked to contact with infected birds. But scientists fear the virus could mutate into a form that is easily transmitted between humans, triggering a pandemic.

Nigerian health authorities said Monday the H5N1 strain has been identified in two more states, and the government ordered an immediate slaughter of birds in the area. The northern states Katsina and Zamfara are among five of Nigeria's 36 states now confirmed to have been affected. Nigeria documented Africa's first H5N1 case earlier this month, but no human infections have been reported.

In Europe, nearly 250 German troops cleared dead birds from the Baltic island of Ruegen, where the country's first outbreak of the disease were confirmed in wild birds last week.

EU officials cautioned against panic, saying bird flu had not reached commercial stocks, only wild birds. They encouraged people to continue eating poultry.

"This is an animal disease, not a human disease," EU Public Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said. "There is no reason for Europeans not to eat poultry meat."

France, the EU's largest poultry producer, became the latest European country to confirm H5N1 in wild fowl. Birds in Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy and Slovenia also have tested positive for the strain. Hungary also has reported five cases of suspected H5N1 in birds.

Elsewhere in Europe, the virus has turned up in Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and Bulgaria.

European chicken farmers said consumption has fallen, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. The EU head office said recent outbreaks of avian bird flu in wild birds had created "a very serious market situation."

However, EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel told the EU farm ministers that conditions were not serious enough to warrant compensation for poultry farmers. She said she would reconsider "if the situation so requires."

France, the Netherlands, Italy and other nations want to vaccinate poultry "but opinion in Europe is divided," said Josef Proell, the Austrian agriculture minister who chaired the EU meeting.

In Asia, Malaysia's government said 40 chickens died last week from the H5N1 virus in an area near Kuala Lumpur, the main city. Agriculture Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said there were no human deaths, and all 110 chickens in the area, covering four hamlets, were slaughtered.

Malaysia had declared itself free of bird flu in January 2005, more than six weeks after its last infection was detected.