International experts were to resume talks here yesterday on tackling the deadly bird flu epidemic, as France conducts a mass vaccination of ducks and geese and the lethal H5N1 strain makes further inroads in Africa.
Health officials in the southwest French department of the Landes on Monday started vaccinating some 700,000 birds intended for production of foie gras, in an operation that is expected to take several weeks.
Geese on a farm at the village of Classun were the first to receive an injection to the neck containing a vaccine based on the related H5N2 virus. Booster shots are required after four weeks.
Experts see vaccination as a last resort in countries with an advanced level of veterinary organization. Confinement of domestic fowl, isolation of suspect cases, surveillance and selected slaughter is still the preferred option.
An exception was requested for southwest France because it was deemed impractical to confine the region's large flocks.
On Saturday France became the first European country to report an outbreak of the potentially deadly strain of the bird flu virus in domestic poultry, after hundreds of turkeys died at a farm in the eastern department of Ain.
The commercial repercussions of the outbreak were driven home Monday as the trade ministry in Paris announced that some 20 countries were now banning poultry and foie gras imports from France.
Experts fear that H5N1, which has killed more than 90 people, mostly in Asia, since 2003, may mutate into a form that can pass between humans, rather than just from bird to human, launching a pandemic that could kill millions.
Human deaths have already been recorded in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Iraq, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam. Some 40 countries have now been hit by the H5N1 strain, which began in east Asia and spread west to Europe and Africa.
The virus is continuing its advance into Africa, with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) reporting the first cases in Niger.
Nigeria, which was previously the only west African country with the disease, reported that two more states in the north -- Yobe and Nassarawa -- had been hit. A total of 300,000 birds have died or been slaughtered since the virus was detected two weeks ago, officials said.
In Nairobi, Kenyan authorities said 400 dead chickens were being tested for H5N1.
The bird flu virus is carried mainly by wild waterfowl, and with the springtime migration north to Europe imminent, the implications of large-scale African infection are far-reaching.
Chief veterinary officers from more than 50 countries in Europe as well as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Iran and Syria began a two-day meeting at the OIE's headquarters in Paris on Monday aimed at coordinating their response to the worsening epidemic.
"They will be be hearing country-by-country situation reports, analysing the way the virus is spreading and recommending coordinated measures for detection and control," said OIE spokeswoman Maria Zampaglione.
OIE director-general Bernard Vallat warned that bird flu was transforming from "epidemic to pandemic."
"With the exception of Australia and New Zealand, which are not hit by bird migrations from affected areas, the rest of the world is directly exposed ... Various clues have raised the fear it could contaminate the American continent," he told France's Le Monde newspaper.