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Bird flu virtually unavoidable in Afghanistan - UN

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KABUL, Feb 22 (Reuters) An outbreak of bird flu among birds in Afghanistan is virtually unavoidable, a UN agency today warned, calling for immediate steps to tackle the threat.

With cases of the deadly disease detected in neighbouring Iran and India, Afghanistan is practically surrounded, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said.

''Today we can say that an outbreak of the disease among birds in Afghanistan is virtually unavoidable,'' FAO representative Serge Verniau, said in a speech near a lake used by migrating birds on the outskirts of Kabul.

''FAO reiterates the urgent need to take immediate action on strengthening animal disease surveillance and laboratory testing, communication and public awareness.'' An FAO official said no sign of the bird flu virus had been detected so far in Afghanistan, a stop for wild birds during their annual migration from Siberia to the warm waters of the Indian subcontinent and vice versa.

However, the war-ravaged country has minimal health services making any outbreak difficult to detect.

Afghanistan has already imposed a ban on duck hunting and curbs on imports of live poultry as a precaution and now that the bird migration has began, samples have been sent overseas for testing, the FAO official added.

Verniau said action taken so far by the Afghan authorities and aid donors had been insufficient to win the battle.

''The country is more at risk than ever -- the enemy is forcing the gates,'' he said. ''Afghanistan needs to plan and take action before avian flu hits the country.'' While there was no need to panic and people could still eat poultry products, they needed to be informed about the importance of basic hygiene -- notably washing hands after touching uncooked poultry, Veniau said.

People also needed to know that authorities would provide incentives especially to poor farmers, to encourage them to report immediately if they suspected an outbreak to discourage a rush to sell birds on the market, he said.

REUTERS SHR PM1725

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