HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finland's Agriculture Ministry said on Friday it had found a possible outbreak of bird flu in seagulls in the northern town of Oulu, but probably not the highly pathogenic strain that has caused deaths in Asia.
A ministry official said laboratory tests had identified the virus among "sick and dead seagulls" found in a park in Oulu, though it was not clear how many of them were carrying the disease or how serious a strain of flu it was.
"Our view a the moment is that if it is bird flu, it is low pathogenic avian influenza, not the high pathogenic which has been found in Asia," senior ministry official Riitta Heinonen told Reuters. Final test results will be ready in three weeks.
"First we will make certain which type of virus it is and then we will check other wild birds in the area," she said. "There are no poultry farms nearby."
Low-pathogenic bird flu is not uncommon and can be found in as many as 30 percent of wild birds, experts say.
But monitoring is increasing as fears grow of a global outbreak, especially since the avian virus has spread from Asia into Siberia in eastern Russia and Kazakhstan.
Some experts warn it could spread to Europe via migratory birds as they move to warmer areas for winter after nesting in Siberia. The World Health Organisation has urged governments to stock up with antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu.
Finland shares a 1,300-km eastern border with Russia and borders on Sweden, Norway and the Baltic to the west.
Bird flu has killed 62 people in Asia since 2003 and forced the slaughter of millions of fowl. The European Union, of which Finland is a member, said earlier this week it believed there was only a remote or low chance of it striking the EU.
Veterinary experts from the EU said on Thursday bird flu in Central Asia was "not a direct threat for Europe and there is no need for general emergency actions".
Philip Tod, spokesman for consumer health and protection at the European Commission in Brussels, said Finnish vets expected the seagulls' case to prove to be a low pathogenic strain of influenza.
The Finnish ministry said it had been improving disease protection for poultry facilities "systematically over several years". The import of live birds and poultry products from areas stricken by bird flu is banned.
(Additional reporting by Tarmo Virki in Helsinki, Daniel Frykholm in Stockholm and Peter Nielsen in Brussels)