JERUSALEM -- Israeli health officials announced yesterday that they believe more than 1,000 turkeys have died in recent days from bird flu, the first reported cases in the country.
Initial test results appeared to confirm that birds being raised on four farms in southern Israel died after being infected by the H5N1 virus, the avian flu's deadly strain. Additional tests recommended by the World Health Organization are being conducted to confirm the findings, but Israeli officials are already taking precautions.
The Agriculture Ministry began preparations yesterday to kill 86,000 birds within a roughly 2-mile radius around the farms where the turkeys have died in recent days.
Israel also halted the export of all unprocessed chicken and turkey meat, and health officials sought to assure Israelis that the supply in stores was safe from infection.
''The risk that people will contract the virus is very, very low," said Avi Yisraeli, the health ministry's general director.
Nearly 100 people worldwide have died from the avian flu, and tens of millions of birds have been slaughtered in efforts to stop its spread.
After cases of avian flu were discovered in Turkey last fall, Israeli health and agriculture officials said it was probably only a matter of time before the first birds here contracted the virus. Yaakov Edri, Israel's health minister, told Army Radio yesterday that there was a ''very high chance that this is avian flu."
''But, of course, there are more tests to be done," Edri said.
Last month, the H5N1 virus was detected in poultry in Egypt, Israel's southern neighbor. Because the suspected cases of infection in Israel have been concentrated in the south, Agriculture Minister Zeev Boim said the virus may have migrated from Egypt.
Israeli military officials have also asked the Palestinian Authority for blood samples from poultry in the Gaza Strip, seeking to determine if the virus may have come from there. Israel evacuated settlers and military installations in Gaza last year, but still maintains control over trade passages into Israel. Israeli agriculture officials imposed a quarantine on at least three farms in the Negev region of southern Israel.