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Middle East Bracing for Possible Arrival of Bird Flu


Middle Eastern and North African countries are restricting bird imports and taking other measures to prevent the spread of bird flu. But migration patterns indicate that it is likely the virus will spread to the region.

The deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza has been detected in Turkey, and health officials warn that migratory wild birds are likely to bring the virus into the Middle East and Africa.

Iran is investigating what killed more than 3,000 wild waterfowl. Iranian officials say they have not found bird flu, but have quarantined the area.

Avian influenza is transmitted through contact with live or dead birds, not through eating them. But in the Middle East and North Africa, most poultry destined for the dinner table is sold live in market shops.

Chickens in handmade wooden crates get agitated as a woman reaches into a nearby crate, carefully selecting pigeons for tonight's dinner. Nearby is a crate of ducks, and another one of turkeys.

Visits to three poultry shops in a market district of Giza revealed that it is business as usual. None of the merchants said they have had visits or special information from the ministries of health or agriculture.

Shop-owner Saiid Azuz Mohammed says he is not worried. He says everything is normal. Nothing is different, nothing has changed.

As he speaks, a customer named Anissa Abbas listens intently, and then asks a reporter whether there is any news about the bird flu.

She says she is very concerned about it and has heard the news on television. But, so far, nothing has happened in Egypt and, God willing, nothing will happen.

Mrs. Abbas says she is confident about the health of the Egyptian birds for sale in this shop.

She says hopefully, there will be no problems here. All of the birds are Egyptian products. The only thing is that we do not want to import anything from abroad.

The Egyptian government has stopped importing live birds, and recently quarantined roughly 13,000 turkey chicks that arrived at the Cairo airport from Germany. It now says the birds are not infected.

Other countries have also stopped or curtailed bird imports, including Sudan, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

But just restricting imports may not be enough to keep avian influenza at bay. Wild birds migrate through the region from western Asia, and health officials are afraid they could transmit the virus to domestic bird populations.

Jordan and Egypt are monitoring migratory birds for signs of avian influenza.

Health officials in Egypt say the major poultry farms are indoors, so domestically raised chickens and turkeys should theoretically be protected from infection by wild birds.

But pigeons are another matter. Roasted pigeon is a traditional delicacy here, and many city dwellers, especially those in poorer neighborhoods, raise pigeons on their rooftops. The countryside is dotted with cone-shaped pigeon towers, where the birds nest. Pigeons are for sale alongside chickens and ducks in the market shops.

Meanwhile, Jordan and several Persian Gulf states have restricted the hunting of wild birds, a popular pastime. In the Gulf, the sport of falconry is one of the oldest and most noble pastimes. Many Gulf countries have forbidden their citizens from traveling to Asia for falcon hunting this year.

Saudi Arabia is reported to be stocking up on anti-viral drugs for treatment of avian influenza in advance of the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which will take place in January.