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2nd case of avian flu stokes fear in Egypt

CAIRO, Egypt—Fear of the deadly bird flu virus in rising in Egypt, where one woman has died of the ailment and a second person is reported to have contracted it.

The Egyptian Ministry of Health announced on Sunday that the second human victim is a 28-year-old man from the same village as the 30-year-old woman whose death had been announced Saturday. The health ministry said that the second victim is showing signs of recovery.

But word that one person has died from the H5N1 strain of avian flu had many Cairo residents passing on eating poultry. At Cairo restaurants, diners avoided recipes that included chicken or asked for meat substitutes, workers said. Housewives said that they'd cleaned out their fridges in spite of health experts' insistence that it's safe for humans to consume chicken if it's cooked or grilled.

Egypt's location on the route of migratory birds between Asia and Africa makes it especially exposed to infection. Bird flu was first detected here in mid-February, forcing the government to cull millions of chickens and to ban the sale of live poultry. Health officials also launched an awareness campaign to prevent panic.

But fear set in after the news that Amal Mohamed Ismail, who raised chickens in her home 25 miles north of Cairo, had died after she was admitted to a hospital last week with a high fever, chest pains and aching bones.

"I'm now more afraid then I was before," said Sayed Ragab, 40, who said he had stopped eating chicken and had told his wife to get rid of all the chicken he had bought just a few days ago. "All that media campaign by the government. Why didn't they go and destroy her farm?"

Veterinary teams joined by the police put Ismail's village under quarantine and are monitoring her family for signs of infection, the health ministry said. Officials said the second victim was not related to Ismail.

Egyptian chicken farmers, meanwhile, are lobbying the government for emergency aid to reimburse them for lost sales as grocery stores and restaurants stop offering poultry.

Waleed Hamdy, the manager of a Cairo supermarket, pointed to the empty space in a large cooler that was once filled with fresh chickens. Now, only frozen birds are for sale.

"I'm one of the people who got scared," admitted Hamdy, 28. "I stopped buying chicken, even the frozen ones."

Restaurant owners said the panic has wiped out demand for breakfasts of omelets, scrambled eggs and other chicken products.

"The demand for chicken has definitely fallen," said Ahmed Abdel Wahab, 25, a waiter at an upscale Cairo diner that caters to foreigners and university students. "We used to order 33 to 44 pounds of chicken, now we order about 22 pounds."

Two women at the diner illustrated the confusion over what is safe. The first, a 47-year-old Algerian who gave her name as Baya, had just ordered a chicken sandwich.

"I like chicken too much and it's hard to know what to eat these days, anyway," she said with a shrug.

Her friend, a 35-year-old Libyan named Wafa Ibherat, said she was terrified by the news of Ismail's death. Chicken is now off limits for her.

"It scared me a lot when I first heard it on TV," she said. "I tracked the news on all channels and searched on the Internet as well, to be informed."

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(El Naggar is a Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondent.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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