Pet worries fuel bird flu fears, poultry bans spread
BERLIN, March 1 (Reuters) Public alarm over the spread of bird flu grew today after Germany reported a dead cat infected with the virus, while France sought to limit restrictions on its poultry exports.
Germany told pet owners to keep their cats indoors and their dogs on a leash in areas hit by bird flu after the discovery of the dead cat on a northern island where the H5N1 virus has been identified in wild birds.
The cat grabbed the headlines in several countries in pet-loving Europe, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) said it did not increase the threat to human health from a virus which has killed at least 93 people since late 2003.
''There is no present evidence that domestic cats play a role in the transmission cycle of H5N1 viruses. To date, no human case has been linked to exposure to a diseased cat,'' it said.
''Unlike the case in domestic and wild birds, there is no evidence that domestic cats are a reservoir of the virus.'' Switzerland reported its second case of bird flu in a dead swan found close to the German border, although further tests were needed to confirm it was the deadly H5N1 strain.
Bird flu has killed or led to the culling of some 200 million birds since it reeemerged in Asia in late 2003 . It remains essentially an animal disease, although people can contract it through close contact with infected birds.
The real fear for human health is that the virus will mutate into a form that passes easily from person to person, sparking a pandemic in which millions could die.
FRENCH TRADE HIT France, Europe's largest poultry producer, last week became the first country in the European Union to report an outbreak of bird flu on a farm.
As many as 43 countries outside the European Union have since banned or restricted French poultry imports, Trade Minister Christine Lagarde said today.
This sharp rise over a matter of days is worrying Paris which is now asking governments to limit the bans to the eastern region of France infected by the deadly strain of bird flu.
The H5N1 virus has been detected in birds in around 20 new countries over the past month alone, crossing into Europe and Africa. The spread is blamed on migratory birds, although some people argue that poultry trade might play a role.
Impoverished Niger, which this week became the second West African country hit by H5N1, appealed for international help today to cull poultry.
The government in Niger, one of the poorest nations on earth, has ordered the systematic culling of poultry in affected zones to stop the disease spreading but said it needed equipment such as protective suits and chemicals before it could begin.
''The cull has not started. It will not start until we have the appropriate material,'' Animal Resources Minister Abdoulaye Jina told Reuters.
''We are expecting the special overalls very shortly.'' Experts fear weak detection systems in Africa, which has an estimated 1.1 billion chickens, many in backyard farms, combined with the easy movement of birds across borders and limited awareness about the disease could help its spread.
REUTERS KD PM2056