* Egypt considering culling pigs due to swine flu fears
* Between 300,000 to 400,000 pigs could be affected
* Egypt will compensate affected farmers
By Cynthia Johnston
CAIRO, April 29 (Reuters) - Egypt, hard hit by the highly pathogenic bird flu virus, is considering culling hundreds of thousands of pigs as a precautionary measure as swine flu nears the borders of the most populous Arab country.
The move is not expected to block the H1N1 virus from striking, as the illness is spread by people and not present in Egyptian swine. But acting against 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 any flu pandemic could spread quickly in Egypt and have a devastating impact in a country where most of the roughly 80 million people live in the densely packed Nile Valley, many concentrated in crowded slums in and around Cairo.
"The question now is should we kill them or relocate them, and the prevailing idea now is to kill the existing (pigs) and of course compensate their owners," cabinet spokesman Magdy Rady said on Wednesday.
He put the number of pigs that could be culled at between 300,000 and 400,000, and said a decision was expected in days.
"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," he told Reuters.
Swine flu has killed up to 159 people in Mexico and cases have been reported in the United States and Europe as well as in neighbouring Israel. Egypt has no reported cases, but has stepped up monitoring at airports.
Egypt, harder hit by the H5N1 bird flu virus than any other country outside of Asia, is deeply worried about the impact of another flu virus after bird flu inflicted extensive damage to its poultry industry and economy.
RISKS IN EGYPT
Experts have long feared the bird flu virus could mutate into a form that spreads easily among people, sparking a pandemic that could kill millions.
Experts say the culling of pigs in Egypt, which has seen a surge in human cases of bird flu this month even as the flu season nears an end, is unlikely to have an impact on the spread of swine flu if it reaches the country via air travellers.
"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 Organization, 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 due to the bird flu threat.
But Rady said relocation, which would take roughly six months, was not viable and Egypt wanted to remove even a theoretical risk. He said farmers could open new farms with new livestock away from people.
Egypt’s al-Ahram newspaper said owners of culled pigs may receive 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($177) per head 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 that is technically possible but extremely unlikely that swine flu -- a mix of swine, human and avian flu -- could find a way to combine with H5N1 in Egypt to create yet another flu strain. ($1 = 5.6406 Egyptian pounds) (Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Dominic Evans)