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Israel Announces First Cases of Deadly Bird Flu Strain, in Turkeys

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 18, 2006

JERUSALEM, March 17 -- Israeli health officials announced Friday that they believe more than 1,000 turkeys have died in recent days from bird flu, the first reported cases in the country.

Initial test results appeared to confirm that birds being raised on four farms in southern Israel died after being infected by the H5N1 virus, avian influenza's deadly strain. Additional tests recommended by the World Health Organization are being conducted to confirm the findings, but Israeli officials are already taking precautions.

The Agriculture Ministry began preparations Friday to kill 86,000 birds within a roughly two-mile radius around the farms where, by some unofficial estimates, 11,000 turkeys have died in recent days.

Israel also halted the export of all unprocessed chicken and turkey meat, and health officials sought to assure Israelis that the supply in stores was safe.

"The risk that people will contract the virus is very, very low," said Avi Yisraeli, the Health Ministry's director general.

Nearly 100 people worldwide have died of avian flu, and tens of millions of birds have been slaughtered in efforts to stop its spread.

After it was discovered in Turkey last fall, Israeli health and agriculture officials said it was likely only a matter of time before the first birds here contracted the virus. Yaakov Edri, Israel's health minister, told Army Radio on Friday that there was a "very high chance that this is avian flu."

"But, of course, there are more tests to be done," Edri said.

Last month, the H5N1 virus was detected in poultry in Egypt, Israel's southern neighbor. Because the suspected cases of infection in Israel have so far been concentrated in the south, Agriculture Minister Zeev Boim said the virus may have migrated from Egypt.

Israeli military officials have also asked the Palestinian Authority for blood samples from poultry in the Gaza Strip, seeking to determine if the virus may have come from there. Israel evacuated settlers and military installations in Gaza last year but still maintains control over trade passages into Israel.

Israeli agriculture officials imposed a quarantine on at least three farms in the Negev region of southern Israel while testing is underway. Israeli officials said the results would be ready within two days.

The Haaretz newspaper reported that at least three workers from the farms were being treated for symptoms associated with bird flu, although there has been no confirmation that they are suffering from the virus. One of the men, a Thai immigrant, is being held in isolation at the Soroka Medical Center in the city of Beersheba.

Health officials said they had vaccinations for about half of Israel's roughly 6.2 million people and planned to fly in an additional 4 million doses from the Netherlands in the coming days.

The Ynet news Web site reported that culling had begun Friday and estimated it would eventually involve more than 200,000 birds. The killing is done by poisoning the birds' drinking water, and Israeli farmers are expressing fears of huge financial losses.

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