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The discovery Saturday of a bird flu antibody at yet another chicken farm in Ibaraki Prefecture has many officials throwing up their hands in despair.

The latest finding, at a farm in Ogawa, brings to 14 the tally of farms affected by avian flu, and they include poultry farms with the latest equipment and facilities.

Because the antibody is of a weak strain of the disease, there are no defining marks of infection, such as birds dying en masse. The flip side, however, is that the strain is highly contagious, so that by the time one chicken is found to have contracted it chances are the entire coop is infected.

One farm in the city of Ishioka kept its birds in an advanced facility that was sealed off from the outside air to control temperature and humidity more effectively.

Staffers said they took all precautions against bird flu, but antibodies were detected in its birds, and the virus itself was found in chickens in one of its 12 coops.

Up to that point, the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry had been ordering all chickens at farms where the antibody was detected to be destroyed. However, it has changed its position so that if the facility in question is of the sealed type, so long as the actual virus is not found in a coop, the birds need not be culled and their eggs can be shipped.

Ministry officials stress their decision is rational and based on scientific evidence. But in fact, had they followed past procedure in Ibaraki Prefecture they would have had to kill some 2 million birds and could have prompted a scare among consumers.

“We took into consideration the need to reduce the damage to businesses,” a senior ministry official admitted.

The easing of the conditions for destroying birds “is just a relief measure for major poultry firms, which use many sealed coops,” one chicken farmer said.

Another issue that authorities must deal with is finding how the virus got here in the first place. Tracking it down is especially difficult as many experts suspect the peak of the infections among the Ibaraki chickens came several months ago.

The genetic makeup of the virus found at farms in Mitsukaido and the town of Ibaraki was 97 percent identical with that of a virus found in Guatemala in 2002. There have been no reports of the Ibaraki virus being found in any countries closer to Japan.

“It’s hard to imagine that the virus was brought here by migrating birds,” said Nobuyuki Terakado, head of the farm ministry team trying to trace the virus. “It may have come to Ibaraki Prefecture via humans or objects.”

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