Britain begins bird flu cull, awaits strain tests

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LONDON, Nov 13 (Reuters) Officials began slaughtering thousands of turkeys today after finding bird flu at a farm in eastern England, with scientists carrying out urgent tests to see if it was the dangerous H5N1 strain.

Britain has already seen one H5N1 outbreak this year at another turkey farm and troubled livestock farmers have had to deal with both foot and mouth disease -- now believed to be over -- and an outbreak of bluetongue disease, again in eastern England.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said the preliminary results from the farm on the border of Norfolk and Suffolk were positive for the H5 strain but did not yet know if it was H5N1, which has killed more than 200 people worldwide since 2003.

''We are still awaiting the results of what strain it is,'' said a DEFRA spokeswoman. ''That will come through in the course of the day. The cull will start today. We don't want to run a running commentary on it but we will confirm when it is complete.'' Millions of birds have died from H5N1 across Asia, Europe and Africa or have been slaughtered to prevent its spread, with fears the virus could spark a global pandemic if it mutated to spread easily between humans.

Gressingham Foods, the company that owned the farm, said all staff had been offered flu vaccinations as a precautionary step. The firm said it alerted officials after 60 of the 6,000 birds on the farm were found dead on Sunday.

DEFRA said it had increased surveillance of neighbouring farms and limited bird movement. The area is the centre of much of Britain's poultry and turkey industry, which is gearing up for the busiest period of the year in the run-up to Christmas.

Previous outbreaks worldwide have been blamed on migratory birds or contaminated feed. Scientists said the virus had been found in birds in the Czech Republic, France and Germany in recent months so its spread to Britain was not entirely surprising. There have been no human cases in Europe since outbreaks in Turkey and Azerbaijan in early 2006.

Officials say a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak linked to a government lab in southern England now seems over, but farmers are still hoping for a cold winter to kill the midges who are spreading bluetongue through cattle and sheep in England's east.

REUTERS SKB BD1723

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