As bird flu spreads across Russia, authorities confirmed the outbreak is the same strain of the disease that caused human deaths in Asia. Some European countries have adopted tough measures to counter the threat.
Thousands of birds have been slaughtered in Russia
Russian health officials have confirmed that the outbreak of bird flu heading westwards through the country is the dangerous H5N1 strain. The latest city to be affected is Chelyabinsk, in the Ural mountains. Across Russia, thousands of contaminated geese, chicken and ducks have already had to be killed.
Authorities have blocked roads and slaughtered birds in the area in an effort to control the outbreak. Chelyabinsk is the sixth region in Russia to have been infected since bird flu was first discovered in mid-July. Mongolia and Kazakhstan have also reported outbreaks.
H5N1 is the most deadly strain of the bird flu virus, but so far there have been no reports from Russia of humans contracting the disease.
Dick Thompson, communicable diseases spokesman for the World Health Organization, says the odds of this are low, but that the characteristics of the H5N1 strain increase the danger of a human pandemic.
"What we worry about is that it may happen that the virus infects a human, or even a pig, that has a circulating strain of normal influenza, and this normal human influenza will recombine with this avian form," said Thompson, "What will emerge is a strain that the human immune system has never seen before and moves easily from person to person, and that would ignite a pandemic."
Although European officials say there is no immediate danger to Europe, they are already moving to minimize the risk of local bird populations becoming infected. Russia's public health chief has warned that as migrating birds leave Russia ahead of winter, they will carry the disease westwards, towards Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
In response to this threat, the Netherlands, which suffered a bird flu outbreak in 2003, has adopted the toughest measures in Europe. On Tuesday, the Dutch Agriculture Ministry issued a directive to farmers to keep all poultry indoors in order to minimize contact with migrating birds from Russia. Last Friday the EU also banned the import of live birds and feathers from Russia and Kazakhstan, although in practice no such trade exists.
Inadequate supplies of anti-virals
Despite the new danger, EU officials said on Tuesday that they have no plan to increase vaccine supplies. Because a pandemic may be caused by a new mutation of the virus, Dick Thompson from the WHO says that vaccines may not be an effective measure against the disease.
"While we do believe that the virus is susceptible to a particular anti-viral, that anti-viral will be in limited supply," he said. "Countries which are depending on medical approaches, vaccines and anti-virals will find that there are actually inadequate supplies to confront a pandemic." The best European authorities can do at this stage is to try to keep the disease away from local bird populations.