CAIRO (AFP) — Egypt said on Thursday its cull of 250,000 pigs was a general health measure rather than a precaution against swine flu after the UN said there was no evidence the animals were spreading the disease.
"We're at stage five, the matter is now human not animal," health ministry spokesman Abdelrahman Shahine told AFP after the World Health Organisation ratcheted up its alarm level over the flu, now detected in 12 countries.
"The authorities took advantage of the situation to resolve the question of disorderly pig rearing in Egypt," he said. No cases of swine flu have been detected in Egypt.
Egypt's agriculture ministry says there are 250,000 pigs in the country, belonging to and eaten by members of the Coptic Christian minority. The pigs are reared in Cairo slums inhabited mostly by Christian rubbish collectors.
The agriculture ministry's head of infectious diseases Saber Abdel Aziz Galal told AFP that the cull was "a general health measure."
"It is good to restructure this kind of breeding in good farms, not on rubbish," he said.
"Now they live with dogs, cats, rats, poultry and humans, all in the same area with rubbish. We will build new farms in special areas, like in Europe. Within two years the pigs will return, but we need first to build new farms."
Galal could not say how many pigs were expected to be put to death on Thursday.
Agriculture Minister Amin Abaza said that the mass slaughter would begin in earnest on Saturday.
"It will take three weeks to a month, they'll kill them in specialised slaughterhouses after they've been checked for swine flu," state news agency MENA quoted Abaza as saying.
In defence of the decision to cull the pigs, the minister called on the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to "come and see for itself the conditions at any pig farm in Egypt."
At least one clash was reported north of Cairo on Wednesday after the health ministry announced the immediate slaughter of the nation's pigs, with farmers throwing stones at veterinary services who had come to take their pigs away.
The health ministry said it would now also start collecting health data from 34,000 rubbish collectors, "particularly those working in areas near pig-breeding farms," MENA reported.
The World Health Organisation on Wednesday ruled out pigs as a source of flu transmission.
"We don't see any evidence that anyone is getting infected from pigs," said WHO acting assistant director general Keiji Fukuda. "This appears to be a virus which is moving from person to person."
The world's lead agency in the trade of farm animals added its voice to the WHO, saying the culling of pigs would not stop the spread of the disease.
Culling "will not help to guard against public or animal health risks presented by this novel A/H1N1 influenza virus," the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) said.
Instead, the organisation urged members, which include Egypt, to "focus their efforts on appropriate disease surveillance and strengthening the general biosecurity measures applied at premises where pigs are handled and slaughtered."
State media have said that compensation for pig owners could reach 1,000 Egyptian pounds (180 dollars), but Galal said they would initially simply get their animals back as meat.
"We will kill them and give the meat to the owners," he said. "I think the government will talk to the owners and reach a suitable compensation with them."
Abaza said the authorities were trying to convince pig rearers of the "danger" of the activity as it is practised in Egypt and for them to come forward voluntarily with their pigs.
"It's not a simple matter, all these pigs won't be killed like you're pushing a remote control button," the state-owned Al-Ahram daily quoted him as saying.
Abaza said that a farmer at an undisclosed location had been nabbed with 300 pigs as he tried to smuggle them to freedom on Wednesday. Armed police have been stationed outside some of Cairo's pig sties to prevent such incidents.
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