KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 22 (Reuters) Malaysia today took its search for birds stricken with avian flu to the heart of its capital as speculation grew that smuggled fighting cocks could have brought the virus into the country.
Authorities have killed about 500 suspect birds and are checking people's health to contain what they called an isolated case of the H5N1 virus on the edge of the capital, Malaysia's first reported oubtreak of bird flu in more than a year.
Veterinary department official Kamaruddin Mohamad Isa confirmed the search for possibly infected chickens would include an area that is home to the world's tallest twin towers, the Petronas Towers.
''We only look for chickens,'' he said, adding that searching an area 10 km around the site of the first case was standard operating procedure.
No human cases have so far been reported in Malaysia, which had last reported the H5N1 virus in a chicken in the northern state of Kelantan in 2004.
The fresh case of bird flu hit shares of poultry farms and prompted neighbour Singapore to suspend imports from the central Malaysian state of Selangor, where officials said the virus had killed 40 chickens last week.
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.
The H5N1 virus could have been carried to Malaysia by smuggled fighting cocks or pet birds brought in from neighbouring countries, some officials said.
''Cockerels may have been brought here by foreign workers who organised illegal cock fights,'' the New Straits Times newspaper quoted an unidentified health department official as saying.
Illegal imports of pet birds or fighting cocks probably triggered the outbreak, a group of poultry breeders also said, and demanded stronger punishment, including jail terms, to deter smugglers of poultry and poultry products.
It will take two weeks to pin down the source of the H5N1 virus, Bernama news agency quoted a veterinary official as saying yesterday.
''We have to ascertain the form and pattern of the virus, whether it is the same as the virus which had affected Kelantan, Indonesia, Vietnam or Thailand to find out where the virus came from,'' Aziz Jamaluddin, deputy director of the veterinary services department told reporters.
Reuters SI DB0957