Just days after avian influenza appeared in Germany, France has confirmed its own cases of the deadly virus. The disease is rapidly spreading across the continent, with new reports appearing daily.
France has reported its first case of bird flu in a wild duck
The past week saw a sudden jump in the number of confirmed cases of H5N1 in Europe. After first appearing in Turkey early in January, the virus – which can also spread to humans – has turned up in migratory birds in six European countries.
On Feb. 11, health officials in Bulgaria, Greece and Italy reported finding the virus in swans. A day later, Slovenia confirmed its first case of the bird flu -- also in a dead swan. Shortly thereafter Austria registered its first confirmed findings in swans, and on Feb. 14 German officials reported suspected cases of the virus in swans on the Baltic Sea island of Rügen.
On Feb. 16 the first German tests were confirmed. Within hours more dead swans and geese were tested for the virus. To date, 41 cases of H5N1 have been confirmed on the island. State and federal authorities have sealed off several areas to the public. The agriculture ministry has also submitted an official request for aid from the military.
The fire department on Rügen collects dead birds from the ice
"We're facing an extremely serious situation," said Till Backhaus, agriculture minister in the northern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pommerania near the Polish border, where Rügen is located.
As of Sunday, no cases of the deadly virus have turned up in the rest of the country, and no domestic birds or poultry have tested positive for the disease.
First case in France
Elsewhere in Europe, health and agriculture experts are watching closely for signs of the spreading virus. On Saturday the French ministry of agriculture confirmed tests on a wild duck found dead near the city of Lyon on Feb. 13. It is the first case of bird flu reported in France, but was one of several wild ducks found in the eastern part of the country.
In keeping with European Union ordinances, officials cordoned off a three-kilometer secure area around the place where the dead duck was found. As of Feb. 15, all poultry must be either confined indoors or vaccinated.
Wild geese migrating across Europe pose a threat to poultry farmers
France, the world's fourth largest poultry exporter, is extremely concerned about a possible outbreak of the virus and the likelihood of it spreading to domestic birds. The French poultry industry has already suffered significant losses due to fear and panic among consumers. Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau said he would appeal to his EU colleagues for higher export subsidies for the poultry industry, should the disease continue to spread. He did not give further details at the press conference.
Health Minister Xavier Bertrand told French radio on Sunday he had ordered anti-viral drugs and hundreds of millions of protective masks. He said he would spend whatever necessary to contain any outbreak.
UK on alert
The spread of bird flu from the continent to Britain is now fairly likely, but not inevitable, the British government said on Sunday following the news from France.
"The risk of imminent infection in the UK is still low, but we must remain vigilant," junior Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw said based on veterinary advice. "It's not inevitable but it is clear, obviously, that it's more likely than it was when it was further away," he told a Sunday news program.
Bradshaw said poultry farmers should be ready to coop birds up. They should also monitor flocks carefully and report any outbreak. Government officials would keep a close watch on the situation.
A "highly pathogenic" strain of H5N1 was found in poultry stocks in Nigeria on Feb. 8
Bird flu is now becoming a global threat, having spread across Asia to Europe and parts of Africa. Nigeria and Egypt have both reported several cases, prompting authorities to impose bans on poultry trade, mass culling in infected areas and vaccinations of domestic bird flocks.
Meanwhile India, the world's second most populous nation and a major poultry producer, has begun a campaign to stop the spread of the virus in birds and people after some 50,000 poultry died in recent days in the western state of Maharashtra. A senior official has also confirmed the first suspected human death from bird flu after a 27-year-old poultry farm owner died on Friday.
"Local tests have confirmed bird flu but we have sent samples to the national laboratory. A final report is awaited," Vatsala Vasudev, the top district administrator of Surat in western Gujarat state, told Reuters. Blood samples from eight other people have also been sent for testing, while four other people are under observation.
The H5N1 virus is known to have infected 171 people worldwide since late 2003, killing 93 of them. Two hundred million birds across Asia, parts of the Middle East, Europe and Africa have died of the virus or been culled.