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UK bird flu outbreak spreads; Hungary link probed - extended

The UK bird flu outbreak that began in one shed of a Suffolk farm last weekend has now spread to three other sheds.

The virus may have been imported from Hungary, where geese were infected, the government said. Bernard Matthews Holdings Ltd., Europe's largest poultry producer and the farm's owner, agreed to suspend the movement of products between its outlets in the UK and Hungary until an investigation is completed, the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs said in a statement on its Web site. All infected UK turkeys were culled, according to the statement. The spread of the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza in fowl creates more opportunities for the virus to change into a form that's more infectious to humans.

The WHO, which is tracking the virus, said this week that the recent outbreaks haven't raised the risk of a pandemic. „No panic is justified,” Markos Kyprianou, the European Union Commissioner on Health and Consumer Protection, said at a briefing in Athens yesterday. „Hungary and the UK have taken appropriate measures. The conditions that would allow the disease to spread to humans don't exist in the EU.” The virus has infected at least 272 people worldwide since 2003, killing 165 of them, including a girl in Egypt this week, according to the Geneva-based WHO. None of the deaths have occurred in developed countries. A laboratory near London is testing samples from a woman from Azerbaijan who is suspected of having bird flu, Gregory Hartl, a WHO spokesman, said today.

UK officials say the virus at the Suffolk farm is similar to one identified in Hungary last month. Bernard Matthews farms and its factory in Hungary are all more than 100 miles from the affected site there, company spokeswoman Lucy Windsor said in an e-mail. No avian flu has been reported on any of the company's farms in the eastern European nation, she said. „Bernard Matthews continues to work closely with Defra to assist with its ongoing investigation,” Windsor said in the e- mail. „Consumers have been reassured by the Food Standards Agency that avian flu does not pose a safety risk.” Hungary has received „no concrete information” showing a link between the two outbreaks, Péter Zarka of the country's National Center for Disease Control said in a telephone interview. „We don't think it's very probable” that imports from Hungary brought the disease to the UK, but „we will cooperate with our English colleagues to the maximum degree.”

Goods did transit between the Bernard Matthews operations in Hungary and the UK, Zarka said. „But there were also goods that came from Britain to Hungary,” he added. „So if they want to suggest we sent them the virus, we could also start shrieking, Yikes, they're sending us the disease.” Veterinarians gassed 159,000 birds at the farm in Holton, about 80 miles northeast of London, to stamp out the disease. All workers who came in contact with the birds were offered antiviral drugs. The UK Health Protection Agency said yesterday three of them who showed symptoms of a respiratory disease had tested negative for bird flu. At the moment, the H5N1 virus isn't very contagious to humans and people are more likely to catch it in places where they live close to birds and the disease is endemic, experts say.

In Turkey, the agriculture ministry confirmed that the H5N1 strain infected fowl in the southeastern part of the country. Authorities have closed off a 10-kilometer (6-mile) region around the village of Bogazkoy, in Batman province, and have so far culled almost 800 birds, the ministry said in a faxed statement. Three children and one adult have been hospitalized after touching sick birds, the health ministry said in a statement on its Web site today. The three children showed signs of respiratory tract infection, the statement said. Samples from the patients were being tested for bird flu, according to the statement. (Bloomberg)