France, Europe's largest poultry producer, yesterday braced for a battle with deadly bird flu as Indonesia confirmed its 19th victim and UN experts warned the disease could deprive millions of Africans of food.
Britain too warned the H5N1 strain of the virus blamed officially for the deaths of more than 90 people since 2003 could arrive on its soil after French officials said they suspected it had killed more than a dozen birds.
Europe will need a year to be fully prepared for an eventual pandemic that experts fear could end up killing 142 million people worldwide, according to the director of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
"Europe is very well prepared but I hope there will not be a pandemic in the coming months," Zsuzsanna Jakab told Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.
She said the center was working systematically with each of the 25 EU members on contingency plans. Six had been completed while the remainder should be finalized within a year.
Confirming its 19th death from bird flu, Indonesia vowed to boost stockpiles of Tamiflu, a general anti-viral medicine seen as the most effective at present, amid a steadily climbing number of cases.
The world's fourth most populous nation has reported eight fatalities from H5N1 this year alone, the highest figure globally as the virus continues its march from Asia into Europe and Africa.
A 23-year-old chicken vendor who died in hospital a week ago had tested positive for the virus at a WHO-certified laboratory in the US, the Indonesian health ministry said.
With the virus raging through chicken farms in Nigeria and established in Egypt, the UN food safety agency has warned of dramatic consequences for west Africa if the pattern of the Nigerian outbreak is repeated.
"The effects on a region already facing severe malnutrition would be devastating," said the Food and Agriculture Agency (FAO).
"If a poultry epidemic should develop beyond the boundaries of Nigeria the effects would be disastrous for the livelihoods and the food security of millions of people," veterinary official Joseph Domenech said.
After tests revealed a wild duck found dead in a marsh in central France was probably infected by H5N1, the agriculture ministry said yesterday it was examining the carcasses of more than a dozen birds found across the country.
"For some days we have been expecting animals carrying the virus to be found," official Didier Houssin told radio station Europe 1.
"From the moment the hypothesis of the role of migratory birds in carrying the virus great distances was evoked ... we were able to foresee in a way what is happening now," Houssin said.
A 3km safety cordon has has been set up around the spot where the duck was found, near the town of Joyeux, and wildlife surveillance stepped up across a 10km area.
Britain warned the discovery increased the likelihood bird flu could cross the Channel.
"It is more likely now than it was, but it is not inevitable," UK Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw said on Friday.
"It's still only in wild birds. It hasn't been found in any poultry so far in EU countries this time," he told the BBC. "But clearly the closer it gets to us the risk grows."
The British government has drawn up plans to set up one-mile (1.6km) exclusion zones if any wild bird is found in Britain to be infected with H5N1.