The H5N1 bird flu virus has killed 15 wild swans in south-eastern France where two wild ducks and a turkey farm were contaminated by the disease.
News of the death of the swans, found around the numerous ponds that dot the area, underscored the potential for the lethal virus to spread.
On Saturday, authorities confirmed that a nearby turkey farm of more than 11,000 birds had been contaminated, triggering fears of a collapse of the poultry industry in France – the first outbreak of the virus in commercial poultry in the European Union. Some 400 birds had died and the rest were slaughtered.
France, the EU’s largest poultry producer, was working to control damage to poultry farmers. President Jacques Chirac, visiting Paris’ annual agriculture fair, urged consumers not to panic, and to keep eating chicken.
However, Japan – followed by Hong Kong – temporarily banned the import of poultry products from France, including the delicacy foie gras.
The French poultry sector generated more than £2bn (€2.9bn) in revenues in 2004, or more than 20% of total EU production.
The lethal H5N1 bird flu strain has spread from Asia to at least 10 European countries and Africa, and scientists fear it could mutate into a form that is easily transmitted between humans, sparking a pandemic. The disease has killed more than 90 people, mostly in south-east Asia, according to the World Health Organisation.
A ministry statement said the swans were found near Joyeux, where two wild ducks died of the H5N1 virus. Laboratory analyses revealed that the virus showed a “very strong” genetic link to that found in one of the ducks, the ministry added.
Emergency measures are already in force in the region where the dead swans were found, but the protection zone was enlarged to include 160 towns and hamlets, the ministry said.
Authorities issued a series of extra measures on Saturday that included confining all poultry, reducing traffic in and out of farms to a “strict minimum” and using disinfectant baths for farmers and others who handled poultry.
A regional directive issued yesterday limits access by individuals to the many ponds and swamps in the region which draw migratory birds, stipulating that no one can get closer than 100 meters (328 feet) to the bodies of water.
Michel Fuzeau, the prefect, the highest state representative in the region, said there was a fear of contamination from bird droppings found on the edge of the ponds, where he said there has been a high mortality rate for birds.
But he stressed that there was no risk to strollers.
“There is a risk to the health of the birds” and a spread of the virus to poultry farms, he said on France-Info radio.
“What we are trying to protect is the (poultry) stock,” he added.