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The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that the deadly bird flu virus, H5N1, could arrive in Africa and the Middle East within weeks, carried by birds migrating from Asia.

Following yesterday's (19 October) statement from the organisation's chief veterinary officer, Kenya, Sudan and Tanzania have all imposed restrictions on poultry imports.

Charles Nyamrunda, a senior official at Tanzania's Water and Livestock Development Ministry, told the Reuters news agency that the ministry was teaching people in wetland areas to keep domestic and wild birds apart, and report any dead ones.

East African countries plan to meet later this month in Rwanda to discuss a regional strategy to deal with the threat of bird flu.

In his statement, Joseph Domenech of the FAO said, "The close proximity between people and animals and insufficient surveillance and disease control capacities in eastern African countries create an ideal breeding ground for the virus."

"The countries urgently need international assistance to build up basic surveillance and control systems," he added.

He warned that veterinary services in eastern Africa will find it difficult to run efficient bird flu campaigns based on slaughtering infected animals and vaccination.

Domenech said that if H5N1 were to become entrenched in the region, this would greatly increase the risk of the virus turning into a form that can spread from person to person — a development that could spark a flu pandemic, potentially killing millions (see Time to prepare for bird flu pandemic 'running out').

Birds migrating from regions where bird flu has broken out will begin arriving in East Africa in the coming weeks.

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