Afghanistan asks for help to fight bird flu

War-torn Afghanistan pleaded Tuesday for protective clothing for its staff after the first possible cases of bird flu were detected, as Azerbaijan reported three people killed by the deadly disease.

The H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed or forced the slaughter of tens of millions of chickens and ducks across Asia since 2003, and recently spread to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It also has killed at least 98 people in Asia and Turkey since 2003, according to the World Health Organization's latest tally posted on its Web site early Monday.

Health officials fear H5N1 could evolve into a virus that can be transmitted easily between people and become a global pandemic. So far, human cases generally have been traced to direct contact with sick birds.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said they hoped to know later Tuesday or early Wednesday whether five swab samples from backyard poultry farms in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and the eastern city of Jalalabad, tested positive for the H5N1 strain of the disease.

The samples have already tested positive for H5, but the virus' specific subtype was not known.

Dr. Azizullah Esmoni, director of the husbandry and veterinary department of the Afghan Agriculture Ministry, said his department lacked the resources to buy protective outfits for its staff.

"We are asking for the international community to help us," he said. "We don't have any protective outfits, chemical disinfectant or flu vaccinations."

Abdul Habib Nowruz, FAO's director of migratory birds in Afghanistan, said the organization was considering ways to help the government.

Each person working in bird flu-infected areas needs three or four protective outfits a day and each costs about US$50 (euro42), the equivalent of an Afghan government worker's monthly salary, Nowruz said, reports the AP.

I.L.