UPDATE 3-Nepal reports first H5N1 bird flu outbreak

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KATHMANDU, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Nepal said on Friday it had found the H5N1 bird flu in poultry, the first time the deadly virus has surfaced in the Himalayan nation, prompting culling operations in the country’s southeast.

“The virus has been found in chicken and ducks. We have confirmed it is H5N1 virus,” Agriculture Minister Jai Prakash Prasad Gupta told Reuters.

Bird flu was reported in poultry from the crowded southeast Nepal town of Kakarvitta, bordering India, officials said.

“We have declared that area crisis-hit,” said Krishna Bahadur Mahara, minister for communication and information.

The epicentre of the outbreak is close to India’s West Bengal state which has been fighting to contain intermittent outbreaks of the virus in poultry since last year.

Hari Dahal, a Nepalese agriculture ministry spokesman, said no bird flu symptoms had been noticed among people in the affected area. He said the virus could have come from India.

Veterinary workers were sent to the region on Friday to cull 13,000 poultry in five days to try to control the virus within a 3 km (1.8 miles) radius of Kakarvitta town.

“They have started killing all birds in the area,” Gupta said. “Since the outbreak in India, we were already alert.”

Officials said they sent seven dead birds for testing in a laboratory in London after a dozen birds, all backyard poultry, died mysteriously in Kakarvitta about a week back.

“We got the confirmation today and are now seeking international help to fight the outbreak,” Gupta added.

Neighbouring India has culled millions of chicken and ducks to contain the virus since its first outbreak in 2006, but has reported no human infections.

A senior Nepalese official said Nepal has asked India to help stop the sneaking of poultry products into the Himalayan nation despite a ban imposed after an outbreak of the virus in India’s West Bengal.

Experts have warned the H5N1 virus might mutate or combine with the highly contagious seasonal influenza virus and spark a pandemic that could kill millions of people across the world.

The virus does not infect people easily now but continues to pop up in flocks of birds in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa and could mutate into a form that passes from one person to another.

According to the World Health Organization, H5N1 bird flu has infected more than 390 people in 15 countries and killed at least 247 of them since the virus resurfaced in Asia in 2003. (Writing by Krittivas Mukherjee; Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Jerry Norton)