YANGON, Mar 12 (Reuters) Myanmar authorities are testing scores of dead chickens and quails in the central Mandalay region to determine if they died from bird flu, industry and government officials said today.
If confirmed, it would be the first case of avian influenza in the secretive military-ruled country that is seen by some health experts as a black hole in the global fight against the disease.
''Over a week ago, a large number of chickens on some farms in Mandalay Division died of a disease very similar to bird flu,'' a poultry industry official in Mandalay told Reuters.
Authorities are testing for avian influenza and if confirmed, whether it is the H5N1 strain which has killed millions of birds and at least 97 people in Asia and the Middle East since 2003.
''We are taking all necessary measures to control the situation and to find out more accurate information about the disease,'' said a senior official at the Ministry of Livestock Breeding and Fisheries.
''We're still trying to know whether it was caused by H5N1 or not. We can't say anything for sure yet,'' the official, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.
Myanmar's junta promised last December to let the world know if bird flu spread to the country, which borders China, Thailand and Laos where outbreaks have already occurred.
Experts say it is only a matter of time before the virus arrives in the nation formerly called Burma, an increasingly isolated country ruled by the military since 1962.
They fear the virus will remain unreported -- either through lack of surveillance or a government cover-up -- long enough to mutate into a form that passes more easily between humans and trigger a pandemic that could kill millions.
However, Yangon has cooperated with UN agencies to step up surveillance in the countryside, including monitoring of prime stopover points for wild birds which could bring the virus from neighbouring countries.
The Yangon representative for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) was unavailable for comment on Sunday.
Bird flu has killed at least 97 people in Asia and the Middle East since 2003. Victims contract the virus through close contact with infected poultry.
REUTERS CH BD1757