Flu Deaths and Frayed Nerves in Egypt

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Flu Deaths and Frayed Nerves in Egypt

By Jeffrey Fleishman on LATimes.com

Still, Egypt has no swine flu cases. And yet the government is slaughtering 300000 pigs raised by Coptic Christians

The deaths are disturbing in their frequency.

The latest victim is a 4-year-old girl from the Nile Delta who this week became the 27th Egyptian to die of bird flu since 2006. The news has further agitated a nation whose real-life threats and imagined pandemic fears have created the spooky, lurking-evil aura of a B horror film.

The rising incidence of bird flu here Ė the highest level outside of Asia Ė has spurred a battle between health officials and people accustomed to keeping domestic chickens and geese. According to media reports, 12 new bird flu cases have been detected since April 1. Thatís more than the total number of cases for 2008.

The panic over bird flu has fed into Egypt's fears over the global swine flu outbreak. Still, Egypt has no swine flu cases. And yet the government is slaughtering 300,000 pigs raised by Coptic Christians. World health officials say thatís an overreaction, but Egypt apparently couldnít cope with the specter of another flu epidemic.

Newspapers and TV are full of stories and pictures of pigs in trucks being led to the killing fields and of little boys and girls succumbing to bird flu. Itís a creepy mix of science, funerals, overactive imaginations and talk of mutations and vaccinations.

Stewart Harbut felt Egypt's unease when he and his family flew from Britain to vacation in Sharm El-Sheikh, where they were met by security forces on the lookout for potential flu cases.

"We landed at the airport and were queueing up with the rest of the holidaymakers, looking forward to the break," Harbut told Sky News last week. "All of a sudden, we were surrounded by armed guards and police ó there must have been about 30. All the kids were crying, my wife was crying, and I could not believe it. It felt like something out of a drug-smuggling film. There were guns everywhere, and we were bundled into the back of a van."

The family was taken to a hospital and released after what Harbut says was a grueling ordeal.

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