AFGHANISTAN: Bird flu cases surge in new areas

KABUL, 28 March 2007 (IRIN) - New cases of a deadly strain of bird flu have been confirmed in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, and in the southern province of Kandahar over the past week, according to the Afghan health ministry.

A dead bird found in the garden of the Turkish embassy in Kabul on 20 March was infected with the H5N1 deadly strain of the avian influenza virus, health officials confirmed to IRIN on Wednesday. A quarantine that had been imposed on the embassy compound was lifted after a team of medical workers from the health ministry completed a bird-culling operation there.

"The blood test of an embassy driver who was injured by a bird has shown no sign of avian influenza," the ministry report said.

On 23 March, two more cases of bird flu were confirmed in Kabul, a city with an estimated population of more than 3.5 million people.

Over the past week, bird flu was also detected in the Damaan and Shah Wali Kot districts of Kandahar province in the south of the country.

Officials in Kabul say that insecurity is impeding their efforts to curb the spread of the virus in Shah Wali Kot, where insurgents have repeatedly attacked government employees.

In an effort to mitigate the outbreak of avian influenza in Afghanistan, the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 25 March called on Afghans to stop buying and selling live birds.

"To prevent transmission of avian influenza to humans, WHO is recommending that persons residing in Kabul, Nangarhar and Kunar provinces avoid the live bird markets until no disease has been reported for several months, because avian influenza can spread to humans from contaminated dust and feathers of infected birds," WHO said in a statement.

In addition, WHO has requested Afghan bird-lovers to refrain from petting and touching their birds.

But given the important socio-economic role of birds in the life of many ordinary Afghans, both recommendations are difficult, if not unrealistic, for civilians.

"I have been doing this business [selling live birds] for over four years. I have no other means to feed my extended family," said one bird-seller in Kabul.

Officials in Afghanistan's committee against avian influenza said it would be difficult to close live bird markets in the country.

"I think both economically and socially it is impossible to close all bird markets," Abdullah Fahim, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Health, told IRIN on Wednesday.

Afghanistan's first bird flu case was reported in March 2006.

More than 20 cases of bird flu have been confirmed in the country since February, many in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar.

The Afghan government has prohibited the importation of live birds and poultry products from neighbouring Pakistan where several cases of avian influenza have also been confirmed.

To date, no human case of bird flu has been confirmed among the estimated 25 million inhabitants of Afghanistan. 

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

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