ASTANA/MOSCOW (Reuters) - The number of bird deaths in a Russian bird flu epidemic jumped sharply on Wednesday, and neighbouring Kazakhstan confirmed a fowl virus found in the Central Asian state could kill humans.
Officials said no humans had been infected so far, but the highly potent H5N1 strain has killed over 50 people in Asia since 2003, and outbreaks in the ex-Soviet bloc raised fears the virus could infect humans and trigger a global epidemic.
"A number of measures are being carried out to prevent the disease from spreading further," the Russian Emergencies Ministry said in a note. "There have been no cases of people getting ill."
According to ministry data, the total number of bird deaths since the epidemic hit Russia's Siberia in mid-July rose to 8,347 on Wednesday. The number on Tuesday was just over 5,580.
In Kazakhstan, which shares a long border with Siberia, the Agriculture Ministry confirmed that the virus found in birds was the deadly H5N1 strain.
The ministry, which reported an outbreak of avian flu on Aug. 4, said a quarantine was in place in the affected area near the Golubovka village in northern Kazakhstan's Pavlodar region.
The Russian Emergencies Ministry said most bird deaths on Tuesday and Wednesday occurred in the Omsk and Kurgan regions on the Kazakh border. Other affected Russian regions include Altai, Tyumen and Novosibirsk.
Some Russian health and veterinary officials have suggested migrating birds could export the deadly virus as far away as the United States from Siberia.
But Kazakhstan, roughly the size of Western Europe with a population of just 15 million people, sought to play down fears of a growing problem.
"The epizootic situation in (Kazakhstan's) poultry farms is safe," the agriculture ministry said. "As of Aug. 9 there have been no reports of new outbreaks of the disease among poultry or wildfowl in the republic."
It added officials were testing wildfowl in the many lakes and reservoirs near the village of Golubovka. A quarantine was also in place at the village of Vinogradovka where bird flu was earlier reported and 345 poultry birds had been culled, it said.
The European Union said on Saturday it would ban imports of chicken and other poultry from Russia and Kazakhstan to help prevent the spread of the disease -- a symbolic measure as there is no poultry trade between them and the EU.
There are no known cases of H5N1 bird flu passing from one human to another, but some health officials fear that the virus could mutate and create a pandemic to rival the 40 million people killed by Spanish flu at the end of World War One.
The WHO said measures had been taken to localise the Russian outbreak and noted that no one had been infected so far. Russia is also to test and introduce a new type of vaccine to prevent humans getting the virus.
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