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"The Department of Animal Health and Livestock is closely monitoring the spread of H5N1," says its director, Wilfred Lipita. Imports of live chickens have been banned and the department is working with health officials to safeguard the health of both poultry and humans, he added.

"The government will issue press releases in the print and electronic media advising the public to report any suspicious deaths among poultry and people," says Lipita.

He said that all Malawian veterinary staff were on the alert, and were communicating with their counterparts in neighboring countries.

Malawi's health ministry has set up a task force with other key ministries and international agencies to develop strategies for combating bird flu if it arrives in the country.

 Alick Nkhoma, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's assistant country director, said the organisation "will assist Malawi to strengthen the surveillance on wild and domestic birds and improve on laboratory capacities in order to detect any bird flu outbreak early".

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