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Malaysia says seven from bird flu area in hospital

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PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia, Feb 22 (Reuters) Seven Malaysians are in hospital with breathing problems after the country reported its first case of bird flu in more than a year, a minister today said but test results would take a day.

Health Minister Chua Soi Lek said two adults and five children staying within 300 m (1,000 ft) of the outbreak site had been taken to hospital after being exposed to sick chickens.

''I will not say that they were suspected,'' Chua told a news conference in Malaysia's administrative capital, when asked whether the seven might have bird flu.

''I would say that we are admitting them for investigation to be on the safe side because if they later came out to be true (cases) and they have been moving around town, then it's not safe.'' Chua said the case was a ''very isolated'' incident.

The fresh case of bird flu has hit shares of poultry farms, and prompted neighbour Singapore to suspend imports from the central state of Selangor, where officials said the H5N1 virus killed 40 chickens last week.

Authorities have run health checks from house to house and killed 840 birds as the search for birds suffering from avian flu reached into the heart of Kuala Lumpur in an operation that will run for a week from Feb. 23, veterinary officials said.

But no new cases of H5N1 have emerged since Feb. 19, with clinical tests of swab samples from 139 birds so far turning out negative, they added.

Chua said authorities had screened 916 people from 161 homes, but only seven people with respiratory tract infections had been admitted to hospital.

No human cases have so far been reported in Malaysia, which last reported the H5N1 virus in a chicken in the northern state of Kelantan in 2004.

H5N1 avian influenza has spread in chickens from Korea, across China, south into Indonesia, west across Turkey into western Europe and into the African continent.

It has killed or forced the culling of more than 200 million birds in more than 30 countries. While it does not easily infect people, it has sickened 170 people and killed 92, according to the latest World Health Organization figures.

Veterinary officials declined to comment on speculation that smuggled fighting cocks could have brought the virus to Malaysia.

''My priority now is to stop this from spreading,'' Mustapa Abdul Jalil, the acting chief of veterinary services, told reporters. ''We will do the epidemiology tests later to ascertain the source.'' A group of poultry breeders has said illegal imports of pet birds or fighting cocks probably triggered the outbreak, and it has demanded stronger punishment, including jail terms, to deter smugglers of poultry and poultry products.

REUTERS SB KN1501

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