Bird flu in Jeju found highly pathogenic

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Bird flu in Jeju found highly pathogenic

Korea’s agricultural ministry confirmed Monday that the strain of the H5N8 virus found in Jeju was highly pathogenic.

The virus may have spread throughout the country because the farm where the outbreak allegedly originated failed to report thousands of bird deaths in time, possibly shipping infected birds for more than a month.

The first suspicious case of avian influenza was reported by a farm in Jeju on Friday.

“We tracked down where the Jeju farm got its birds, and found out that a farm in Gunsan, North Jeolla, had shipped 1,000 of its birds to Jeju in May,” said Lee Dong-shik, an official at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “Then we found out that the farm had shipped out 3,600 birds throughout the country from April 27 to May 29, in which period some 2,640 of its birds died.

“The owner did not report himself,” he added.

The 3,600 birds sold from Gunsan ended up in farms in Jeju, South Gyeongsang’s Yangsan and Jinju, Gyeonggi’s Paju, Busan, South Chungcheong’s Seocheon, and North Jeolla’s Jeonju.

Jinju, Seocheon and Jeonju have never had avian influenza outbreaks.

The ministry said in its press release on Monday that most of the 3,600 birds were tracked down and culled, or are being culled, but that the whereabouts of some 160 are uncertain.

“We don’t know where the 160 birds from the farm in Gunsan are,” the ministry said. “We’re investigating.”

All sales of live birds have been put on hold from Monday. By law, if a farmer fails to report a suspicious case of infectious disease, he or she can be fined up to 30 million won ($26,798) or jailed for up to three years.

“North Jeolla provincial authorities are investigating, but the farmer is giving his own explanations to why he didn’t report the deaths in time,” Lee said. “The farmer will be punishable by law if it is proven that he knowingly sold sick birds.”

Other farms that received sick birds that died also did not report the deaths to health authorities. A farm in Jeongeup, North Jeolla, bought 150 birds from the farm in Gunsan on May 14, and 30 of them died. The buyer returned the other 120 birds to the seller. Neither of the farms reported the case.

“The biggest cause behind this situation is the fact that farmers reported suspicious deaths late,” Min Yeon-tae, head of the Livestock Policy Bureau of the Agriculture Ministry, said in a press conference on Monday. “The first farmer who reported the deaths at his farm in Jeju was a farmer with seven chickens only. But the farm in Gunsan where thousands of birds died did not report itself.”

“The ministry will seek to strengthen measures to punish farmers who deliberately try to hide the suspicious cases of avian influenza infection,” the ministry said.

Health authorities may seek to raise the avian influenza warning to the highest level in the four-tier system. “In the fourth-level warning, all disease control and prevention posts throughout the country will be on full alert and operation,” Min said.

The last time the warning was raised to the highest level was on Dec. 16, 2016, when 76 out of 92 cases tested proved positive for bird flu, and 19.1 million birds were culled.

By March, authorities had slaughtered more than 36 million birds. It lowered the warning to the third level on April 19 this year, to the second level on Thursday, before raising it again to the third level on Sunday, after suspicious cases of avian influenza infection surfaced in Jeju.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

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