Tests Confirm Bird Flu Outbreak in Afghanistan

Lab tests have confirmed the first outbreak of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu in war-ravaged Afghanistan, the United Nations and the government said Thursday. Sweden also announced an outbreak of the virulent virus after two wild birds were found to be infected.

In India, health workers slaughtered tens of thousands of chickens in dozens of villages Thursday to contain the country's second bird flu outbreak, a senior official said. The culling was to be completed Friday.

A joint U.N.-Afghan statement said samples taken from six birds in the capital, Kabul, and the eastern city of Jalalabad tested positive for the virus, raising concern about how the impoverished Central Asian nation's government will deal with an outbreak of the disease, which has ravaged poultry populations across the globe and killed at least 98 people.

"The H5N1 strain of avian influenza has today been confirmed in Afghanistan in six samples," the statement said. "Thus far in Afghanistan, avian influenza remains confined to the bird population, with no human cases reported. It is imperative that the human population is protected."

The government has already sought international aid to buy protective clothing for its staff, as well as chemical disinfectant and vaccines. Afghanistan's public veterinary system is weak and no quarantine system exists to check imported poultry at borders.

Bird culling will begin in affected areas, markets selling poultry will be closed and disinfected and a public awareness campaign will be launched to teach people about the dangers of the virus, the statement said.

Afghanistan lies at a crossroads for migratory birds, and its neighbors, including Iran and India, have already detected outbreaks of the virus, which has killed or forced the slaughter of tens of millions of chickens and ducks across Asia since 2003.

Pakistan, which shares borders with all three infected countries but has yet to report a confirmed case of H5N1 bird flu, sent fresh samples of diseased chickens this week to London for testing, government official Muhammad Afzal said Thursday. Last month, authorities sent samples from the same two farms in the country's northwest for tests, but the results were inconclusive.

The disease has also spread to Africa, the Middle East and Europe, where on Wednesday a European Union laboratory confirmed that two wild ducks in southeastern Sweden were infected with H5N1, Sweden's National Board of Agriculture reported.

In western India, health workers culled 75,000 chickens in dozens of villages Thursday, said D.K. Shankaran, the state's chief secretary.

Four chickens in the Jalgaon district of Maharashtra state tested positive for the H5 strain of bird flu, and authorities were still awaiting the results of tests to determine if they had the virulent H5N1 variety.

India suffered its first outbreak of the H5N1 strain last month in Nandurbar, a poultry farming district 170 kilometers (105 miles) west of Jalgaon. It's unclear whether the Jalgaon and Nandurbar outbreaks are related.

"There is no sense of panic. Work is being carried out in a systematic manner," Shankaran said. "We were able to limit the spread last month and will do the same again."

Myanmar, meanwhile, culled 5,000 birds in a three-kilometer (two-mile) radius of a farm where the country's first case of H5N1 was detected last week, the Livestock Breeding and Veterinary Department said Wednesday. It has also banned the sale of chicken and eggs near the property where 112 chickens died.

North Korea also said it has ordered all poultry to be penned up to prevent infection from migratory birds possibly carrying the disease.

Health officials fear H5N1 could evolve into a virus that can be transmitted easily between people and become a global pandemic, but there has been no confirmation of this happening yet.