CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt, hard hit by the bird flu virus, on Wednesday ordered the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of pigs as a precautionary measure as swine flu neared its borders.
The move was not expected to prevent the H1N1 virus from striking, since the illness is spread by people and not present in Egyptian swine. However, a cull of pigs, largely viewed as unclean in conservative Muslim Egypt, could help quell a panic.
Pigs are mainly raised by Egypt's Christian minority.
Experts fear a flu pandemic could spread quickly in Egypt and have a devastating impact in the most populous Arab country, most of whose roughly 80 million people live in the densely packed Nile Valley, many in crowded slums in and around Cairo.
"It is decided to slaughter all swine herds present in Egypt, starting from today," Health Minister Hatem el-Gabali said in a statement.
Cabinet spokesman Magdy Rady put the number of pigs that could be culled at between 300,000 and 400,000, adding that farmers would be compensated. Sporadic culling began even before the decision was announced, with about 75 pigs killed so far, officials said.
"If you see the conditions of the swine farms in Egypt, they are not healthy at all. They are hazards in themselves, even without the swine flu. That's why people are really getting afraid," Rady told Reuters before the decision was taken.
Swine flu has killed up to 159 people in Mexico and one in the United States, and cases have been reported in Europe and in Israel, which borders Egypt. No cases have been reported in Egypt, but monitoring has been stepped up at airports.
Egypt, harder hit by the H5N1 bird flu virus than any other country outside Asia, is deeply worried about the effects of another flu virus after extensive damage to its poultry industry and economy.
Experts say the culling of pigs in Egypt, which has seen a surge in human cases of bird flu this month, is unlikely to affect the spread of swine flu if it reaches the country.
"I wouldn't say it is beneficial for swine flu. It would be beneficial for the general hygiene ... Generally speaking, pigs can transmit many other diseases," Hussein Gezairy, regional director for the World Health Organisation, told journalists.
Mona Aly Mehrez, director of the state-run Animal Welfare Research Institute, said Egypt had long wanted to move pigs away from urban centres as a precaution against possible mutation of the bird flu virus.
Egypt's al-Ahram newspaper said owners of culled pigs could receive 1,000 Egyptian pounds per animal in compensation, although Rady said the issue was still under discussion.
"If you visit these farms you will find the pigs and the chickens are mixed together ... The health and veterinary people are warning that it could be a hazard," Rady said, adding that the concern was of "mutation of bird flu in a new form".
Experts say it is technically possible but highly unlikely that swine flu, which has elements of swine, human and avian flu, could to combine with H5N1 in Egypt to create yet another strain.