PARIS, Feb 24 (Reuters) France confirmed today the presence of an H5 bird flu virus at a farm in the east of the country where thousands of turkeys had died and said results of tests for the H5N1 strain were expected soon.
The outbreak was discovered yesterday at the farm with 11,000 turkeys in the department of Ain, where two cases of the H5N1 virus have already been confirmed in two wild ducks.
''I know that it is the H5 virus, which is a very pathogenic virus,'' Farm Minister Dominique Bussereau told French television, adding test results for H5N1 were not yet available.
''What worries us, and this is why we have reacted immediately, is that the farm is within the protection zone that we set up for the first duck,'' he added.
If confirmed, it would be the first case of H5N1 spreading to a farm in the European Union and could deal a hammer blow to France's already battered poultry industry, worth 6 billion euros (7 billion dollars) a year and the biggest in the bloc.
Poultry sales in France are already down around 30 per cent.
The deadly virus is highly contagious among poultry and can spread through an entire flock within hours. It remains very difficult for humans to catch but has killed more than 90 people worldwide. Experts say cooked poultry meat remains safe to eat.
The virus has spread from Asia to Africa, and experts fear poultry in more regions around the world could soon be infected.
''We are seeing a rapid evolution of the situation,'' OIE Director General Bernard Vallat said in an interview with French daily Le Monde.
80 PER CENT DEATH RATE Local sources said around 80 per cent of the turkeys at the French farm, situated in a region famous for the quality of its chickens, had died. The remaining birds have been culled.
A security zone of three km and a surveillance zone of seven km (five miles) had been set up around the farm as is usual under European Union emergency measures, officials say.
Under EU rules, poultry meat, eggs and products from the zones set up around a bird flu infection site are blocked from the market, except for certain products that meet stringent conditions, such as heat-treated meat.
But trade in these products may continue from other non-affected parts of the country.
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has announced an aid package for the sector worth 52 million euros.
He travelled to Lyon today, where authorities held a bird flu simulation exercise focused on the potential arrival of infected people on an aeroplane from a bird flu-hit region.
France has permission from the EU for a limited vaccination programme in geese and ducks in three departments in the west of the country believed to be at risk from migratory birds.
But Bussereau said two of the departments had decided to opt for the confinement of fowl rather than vaccination.
Vallat told Le Monde he disagreed with French and Dutch request to use vaccination, which he said should only be a last resort where confinement and slaughter were not possible.
''Not using vaccination allows quicker identification of the emergence of the disease,'' he said.
''If I had been Director General of Food at the (French) farm ministry, as was the case a few years ago, I would have done everything I could to stop such a decision being taken.'' REUTERS CH KP1816