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First Cases of Deadly Strain of Bird Flu Reported in India


India has begun mass culling of chickens in a western state, after authorities confirmed the country's first outbreak of deadly bird flu there. Health authorities also say that the H5N1 bird flu virus is the suspected cause of one man's death.

Health teams and farm workers, wearing protective gloves and masks, began culling tens-of-thousands of chickens Sunday, a day after officials confirmed the first case of the deadly H5N1 strain of avian flu in the country.

The infection was found on a farm in the prosperous western state of Maharashtra, which has hundreds of poultry farms.

Officials said more than half million live birds within a three-kilometer radius of the infected farm are being slaughtered, while birds in a radius of up to seven kilometers beyond that will be vaccinated. Poultry trade from the region to the rest of the country has been halted.

But concern is running high in the country, after health officials said that a 27-year-old poultry farmer who died in neighboring Gujarat state might have been infected with the virus.

Health officials say several people suffering from flu-like symptoms have been hospitalized for observation. They and the dead man are being tested for the virus.

The government is asking people not to panic. Indian Health Secretary P.K. Hota told a television channel that the government is taking all measures to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.

"As a precaution, [we have] gone ahead and created a surveillance, and taken human samples also, if there is a case of fever or cold, acute cold, could it be having any hidden strains of avian flu, H5N1? Mercifully, till now, there are no confirmed cases, but we are taking no chances. We have flown the recommended drug Tamiflu of sufficient volume to the area," said P.K. Hota.

Tamiflu is an antiviral agent that might be effective in holding off the disease, or alleviating the symptoms in humans.

Authorities are also distributing protective clothing and masks to poultry workers. They have announced a compensation package for distraught poultry farmers.

Other parts of the country are also gearing up to halt the spread of the virus. On Sunday, India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, began testing chickens for bird flu.

Since 2003, tens-of-millions of chickens have either been killed by the disease, or culled to prevent the disease from spreading. The virus has infected more than 170 people in that time, killing more than 90 of them, the vast majority in East Asia.

So far, all or almost all the victims have contracted the disease from infected poultry. However, health officials fear the virus might mutate into a form that can pass easily between human beings, which could lead to a global pandemic threatening millions of human lives.