Israel to slaughter 500,000 birds over H5N1 fears


Israeli veterinary officials are slaughtering hundreds of thousands of turkeys and chickens as test results appeared to confirm Israel's first outbreak of the deadly bird flu.

Agriculture Ministry spokeswoman Dafna Varisca said "it's very close to 100%" that the virus has spread to Israel . She said test results identified hemagglutinin, one of the two proteins in the deadly strain of avian flu.

Test results from the second protein, neuraminidase, were still pending, she said. Even while waiting for formal confirmation, the government was taking no chances.

The Cabinet devoted its weekly meeting today to the apparent outbreak, while veterinary officials dressed in protective suits continued the systematic slaughter of poultry in four farming communities suspected of being hit by the virus.

Varisca estimated 400,000 to 500,000 turkeys and chickens would be killed by drinking poisoned water. At the Cabinet meeting, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged to form a task force within days to handle compensation for farmers for their losses.

Damage is expected to run into millions of dollars. "There is no indication that there is a possibility that the disease has spread to humans," Olmert told the Cabinet.

The European Commission banned the import of Israeli poultry late last week after Israel announced the first signs of an outbreak. The ban includes live poultry, poultry meat, eggs and poultry products, but not heat-treated poultry.

The H5N1 virus has killed or forced the slaughter of tens of millions of chickens and ducks across Asia since 2003, and recently spread to Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

Health officials fear H5N1 could evolve into a virus that can be transmitted easily between people, potentially triggering a global pandemic, though there is no evidence that is happening.

About 100 people have died from the disease worldwide, most after having been directly infected by sick birds.