CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt, hit hard by bird flu, has ordered the slaughter of every pig herd in the country as a precaution against swine flu, a step the United Nations said was a mistake.
The H1N1 swine flu virus is spread by people and is not present in Egyptian animals but culling pigs, largely viewed as unclean in Muslim Egypt, could help quell any panic.
Twenty six people have died in Egypt from the highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu virus and experts fear any flu pandemic could have a devastating impact in a country where most of the roughly 80 million people live in the densely packed Nile Valley, many in crowded slums in and around Cairo.
But the United Nations said the mass cull of up to 400,000 pigs was “a real mistake”.
“There is no reason to do that. It’s not a swine influenza, it’s a human influenza,” said Joseph Domenech, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation’s chief veterinary officer, told Reuters.
He said the FAO had been trying unsuccessfully to reach Egyptian officials. Pigs are mainly raised by Egypt’s Christian minority.
In a statement earlier on Wednesday, Health Minister Hatem el-Gabali said: “It is decided to slaughter all swine herds present in Egypt, starting from today.”
Cabinet spokesman Magdy Rady said Egypt would compensate farmers for their losses.
Rady said swine farms in Egypt were in poor condition and constituted a health hazard. “That’s why people are really getting afraid,” he told Reuters before the decision was taken.
Swine flu has killed up to 159 people in Mexico and one in the United States, and cases have also been reported in Europe as well as in neighbouring Israel. Egypt has not reported any cases, but has stepped up monitoring at airports.
Egypt has been harder hit by the H5N1 bird flu virus than any other country outside Asia.
RISKS IN EGYPT
Experts have long feared the bird flu virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.
Egypt has suffered a surge in human cases of bird flu this month even as the flu season nears an end. Experts say the culling of pigs is unlikely to have an impact on the spread of swine flu if it reaches the country via air travellers.
“I wouldn’t say it is beneficial for swine flu. It would be beneficial for the general hygiene ... Generally speaking, pigs can transmit many other diseases,” Hussein Gezairy, regional director for the World Health Organization, told journalists.
Mona Aly Mehrez, director of the state-run Animal Welfare Research Institute, said Egypt had long wanted to move pigs away from urban centres as a precaution due to the bird flu threat.
But Rady said relocation, which would could six months, was not viable and Egypt wanted to remove even a theoretical risk.
Experts say that it is technically possible but extremely unlikely that swine flu -- a mix of swine, human and avian flu -- could find a way to combine with H5N1 in Egypt to create yet another flu strain.
$1 = 5.6406 Egyptian pounds
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.