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Iraqis work to contain outbreak of avian flu


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Responding to fears of a second avian flu outbreak this year, Iraqi health officials in the southern city of Amara said yesterday that they had ordered hundreds of chickens slaughtered, cordoned off the city and begun disinfecting cars leaving the area.

A hospital official in Amara said that while no human cases of the virus had been discovered, at least two chickens tested positive. Samples from the birds were sent this week to Cairo, Egypt, for confirmation.

"We have isolated the area and destroyed all the birds there in order to prevent the spread of the disease," said Dr. Sabah Mahdi, a member of the Iraqi government's bird flu task force.

"The Ministry of Health is fully prepared to deal with this problem and we are doing our best to prevent any more cases from occurring, but migratory birds are still coming and obviously they don't need passports to enter the country," he said.

Migratory waterfowl are the most common carriers of avian flu. The ancient city of Amara is situated near Iraq's largest swamp and is known for being a haven for birds.

The scare comes less than a month after the World Health Organization confirmed that the H5N1 strain of the virus caused the death of a 15-year-old girl in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The girl touched birds infected with the virus, according to Iraqi health officials, and died in early January. Her uncle, who lived with the teen, also died. Health officials believe he also had bird flu.

Fears of the virus have led many Iraqis to avoid eating poultry products, hurting the nation's chicken farmers. On Wednesday, about 200 farmers gathered at the entrance of the International Zone in Baghdad, where Iraq's National Assembly meets, to demand compensation for their declining income.

"We heard that the government had allocated huge sums of money to combat this disease, and we want the government to use some of this money to compensate us for having to get rid of all of our poultry," said Hussein Ali Hamza, 44, owner of a poultry farm near the southern city of Samawah.

Avian flu generally infects birds and pigs, but in 1997, the first documented infection in humans killed six people in Hong Kong. When it was found that the virus had jumped from birds to humans, health authorities killed 1.5 million birds in an effort to avert a pandemic.

International health officials are concerned about the virus' ability to mutate into a form that would could be transmitted by human-to-human contact

Iraqi hospitals have reported a rising number of patients checking in out of fear that they had contracted the virus.

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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