Mass bird deaths found in European Russian region - 18/8/2005

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian health workers have found mass bird deaths in a region to the west of the Ural mountains in what could become the first case of the deadly bird flu virus spreading to Europe, officials said on Wednesday.

Russia has fought to contain a bird flu outbreak since mid-July when the first case of the disease -- which can also kill humans -- was registered in Siberia and later in neighbouring Kazakhstan and Mongolia.

The Russian state health watchdog, in a statement posted on its Web site, said the bird deaths occurred on a farm in the Caspian region of Kalmykia -- 2,000 km (1,200 miles) from the region where Russia's first flu outbreak was reported.

It was unclear whether bird flu had caused those deaths.

"This case is being investigated," the Federal Consumers' Rights and Welfare Watchdog said, adding no cases among humans had been confirmed in Russia.

Kalmykia is 1,800 km south of Moscow and is the only Buddhist region in Europe.

The epidemic, officially identified in six Siberian regions, has yet to be confirmed on the western side of the Ural mountains separating Asia from Europe.

Officials fear migrating birds could export it to Western Europe, Africa and the Middle East over coming months.

Separately, Interfax news agency reported from the industrial region of Chelyabinsk, where officials confirmed the first case of the deadly H5N1 strain this week, that the virus had struck another village in the region -- Barsuchye.

In Kazakhstan, the Emergencies Ministry said the death of more than 120 birds in a northern village was due to avian influenza, the sixth location in the country where a bird flu outbreak has been recorded.

Although no humans have been infected in the Kazakh and Russian outbreaks, the H5N1 subtype of bird flu has killed more than 50 people in Asia since 2003.

The prospect of its spreading has prompted warnings that the virus might mutate in humans and unleash a global influenza pandemic that could kill millions. A message from the U.S. embassy to Americans in Kazakhstan this week said the State Department was stockpiling an anti-viral medication, Tamiflu, to treat U.S. government employees and their families at its embassies in southeast Asia.

(additional reporting by Michael Steen in Almaty)

Copyright 2005 Reuters

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