"In view of the current situation, the possibility of a massive bird flu outbreak could not be ruled out," Du Qinglin, the agriculture minister, said on Saturday, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

 

He urged agriculture authorities to be on high alert and to step up disease monitoring and vaccination efforts.

 

Outbreaks in poultry occurred last year in 32 areas throughout China, killing 163,100 chickens, ducks and other fowl, and authorities destroyed 22.6 million more birds to keep the virus from spreading, Du said in a briefing for Chinese legislators.

 

The latest human cases are a nine-year-old girl and a 26-year-old woman, both admitted to hospital in critical condition with fever and pneumonia, the Health Ministry reported.
 
The girl lives in the southeastern coastal province of Zhejiang and the woman is a farmer from Anhui province in the east, the ministry said in a report carried by Xinhua.
 
Eight deaths

 

China has reported eight deaths among its 14 human cases. The farmer, identified only by the surname Wang, had contact with sick and dead poultry that laboratory tests showed had the H5N1 flu strain, the ministry said.

 

It said she got sick on 11 February. The cause of the girl's infection was under investigation, but she visited the home of relatives whose chickens died while she was there, the ministry said. She got sick on 10 February.
 

The H5N1 virus has played havoc
with China's poultry industry

The H5N1 virus has devastated poultry stocks and killed 92 people since 2003, mostly in Asia. Outbreaks have been reported in 14 countries since early February.

 

Outbreaks in Chinese poultry have continued despite a mass inoculation effort that the government says has vaccinated all of the country's flocks of chickens, ducks and other birds.
 
Chinese farmers raised about 15 billion poultry – 21% of the world's total - in 2005, Du said in the Xinhua report.
 
China has about 5.2 billion poultry at any one time. In the latest poultry case, Xinhua said on Saturday that 13 chickens died on a farm in the village of Jitai in Anhui, prompting authorities to destroy more than 200 birds.

Outbreak in France

In France on Saturday, the authorities confirmed the presence of the H5N1 strain of bird flu at a farm in the east of the country where thousands of turkeys have died.

The declaration of the first case of the virus in domestic farm birds in the European Union threatened to deal a blow to France's struggling poultry industry, worth $7 billion a year.

"What worries us, and this is why we have reacted immediately, is that the farm is within the protection zone that we set up for the first duck"

Dominique Bussereau,
French farm minister

The outbreak was discovered on Thursday at the farm with 11,000 turkeys, where two cases of H5N1 had been confirmed in wild ducks.

The Agriculture Ministry said in a statement that laboratory tests by Afssa, France's national agency for nutritional safety, had showed that the virus found at the turkey farm was almost the same as that found in one of the ducks.

The ministry added that an investigation was under way to establish how the farm became contaminated.

Local sources said about 80% of the turkeys at the French farm, in a region famous for the quality of its chickens, had died. The remaining birds were culled.

Officials said a security zone of 3km and a surveillance zone of 7km had been set up around the farm, as is usual under EU emergency measures.