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Talks on pandemic to open as Australia bans Canadian birds

With reports from Gloria Galloway, Murray Campbell, Associated Press and Reuters

OTTAWA and TORONTO

da is preparing to discuss pandemic preparations with health ministers from around the world, as the human toll from avian flu increased by one yesterday and Australia banned live bird imports from Canada after racing pigeons were found to have been exposed to diseases, including bird flu.

David Finlayson, spokesman for the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, said out of about 100 racing pigeons imported from Canada for breeding, three tested positive for the antibodies and would be destroyed.

"We are currently talking with authorities in Canada about whether the rest of the birds can be returned to Canada," he said late last night.

Australian officials did not say which strain of bird flu antibodies they were carrying. Mr. Finlayson said the only birds from Canada banned at this time are pigeons, which are shipped by air to Australia.

Elizabeth Whiting, spokeswoman for federal Agriculture Minister Andy Mitchell, said last night the birds came from Ontario.

She said that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency quarantined and tested the birds -- a routine procedure -- before they left Canada and that tests did not detect live avian influenza viruses. The CFIA did not test for antibodies, which she said Australia does not require.

Ms. Whiting said the two dangerous strains of avian flu are not present in Canadian birds.

A federal official said that Canada believes the Australian ban is unnecessary.

"The presence of antibodies in birds is not a legitimate reason to close the border," the official said.

Meanwhile, health ministers and heads of key international organizations will gather in Ottawa next week to discuss ways to strengthen the international response to an anticipated influenza pandemic, which some scientists say may already be developing in the form of the H5N1 avian virus.

That virus, which does not yet appear to be transmissible between humans, killed another person in Thailand, where a 48-year-old man died after slaughtering and eating an infected chicken. The avian flu has caused the deaths or destruction of 150 million birds and killed at least 61 people in Asia since 2003.

"At this time, avian influenza, the H5N1, is the strain that has the most potential to become a serious pandemic," David Butler Jones, Canada's chief public health officer, said yesterday.

"That does not mean that [the next pandemic] will be the H5N1 and, even if it were a derivative of this particular strain, it will have changed. . . . It will need to develop the ability to spread easily from person to person," he said.

Ian Shugart, an assistant deputy minister with the federal Health Department, said the meeting next week will provide Canada with an opportunity to encourage all countries to collaborate on global pandemic planning.

The two-day meeting in Ottawa will bring together, for the first time, ministers of health from 30 countries and senior officials from international organizations including the World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health.

They will discuss how to reduce the spread of infectious diseases, including the H5N1 avian virus that is the current focus of global concern, among animals and from animals to humans, Mr. Shugart said.

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