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Fears of bird flu in Bahamas exaggerated-officials

Written by: Staff
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MIAMI, March 2 (Reuters) An unexplained spate of bird deaths in the Bahamas involved only five birds, not the 21 initially reported, reducing the likelihood of an outbreak of deadly bird flu virus, the Bahamian government said.

But a statement from agriculture officials yesterday did not say whether tests on the dead birds had been completed.

''Preliminary field reports on the investigation of unexplained death of birds on the island of Inagua in the Southern Bahamas were exaggerated,'' the statement said.

Initial reports indicated 15 of Inagua's famous flamingos, five roseate spoonbills and one cormorant were found dead on the island.

But agriculture officials said only five birds had died.

''Veterinary experts indicate that the presence of the deadly H5N1 would have decimated the large flock of flamingos and other birds on that island,'' the statement said.

The H5N1 bird flu strain has killed at least 94 people around the world and spread to 20 new countries in the past month alone.

If H5N1 is confirmed as the cause of death of the Inagua birds, it would mark the closest recorded incidence of the deadly virus to the United States.

The southernmost island of the Bahamas chain, Inagua lies about 500 miles from Miami and 60 miles from the coasts of Haiti and Cuba.

The virus is endemic in birds across parts of Asia but has since spread to Europe and Africa. Experts fear it could mutate into a form more easily passed between humans and trigger a pandemic in which millions could die.

Experts dispatched to Inagua on Tuesday to take test samples were due back in Nassau today and the government said it would issue a further report after their return.

The officials said the birds appeared to have been dead for several days and no new deaths had been reported.

The deaths sparked concerns for the Bahamas No 1 industry, tourism, which employs about 40 percent of the work force. More than 4 million tourists visit the island chain of 300,000 people each year.

Inagua is a large, sparsely populated island known primarily for sea salt production.

It is the second-largest breeding ground for flamingos outside of Africa.

REUTERS KD DS1045

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