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Many government sectors are still finalising their plans for facing the threat of bird flu, with only the agriculture department able to provide details of its strategy.

Bothle Modisane, the department's senior manager for animal health, says that South Africa has plans in place for controlling an H5N1 bird flu outbreak in poultry, having successfully contained an outbreak of the related H5N2 strain in ostriches last year.

South Africa has banned imports of live poultry and poultry products from countries that have had bird flu in the past six months.

Commercial poultry farmers must supply samples of chicken blood to the national veterinary laboratory for testing each month. Farmers must also report all suspicious diseases or deaths to the state veterinary surgeon. Smaller, rural farms are being inspected regularly, says Modisane. In an outbreak of H5N1, the birds would be culled, he says.

Plans for protecting human health are based on WHO guidelines, but officials are still discussing the fine details, says Lucille Blumberg, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases. "We're not ready, but no-one is anywhere else in the world," she says.

South Africa is fast-tracking registration of the flu drug Tamiflu, with a view to stockpiling it, says health department spokesperson Solly Mabotha.

Approval could take up to nine months, but officials say the drug could be imported in an emergency before that time. They are still discussing how to share a limited supply of Tamiflu if a flu pandemic occurs.

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