Brussels is confident its measures against spiraling bird flu in Southeast Asia are sufficient to keep the disease away from EU borders, even as fears rise that the deadly virus might jump the species barrier.
Thai workers prepare to slaughter chickens.
After last week’s official discovery of the outbreak of bird flu in Thailand, the spread of the disease has taken on staggering dimensions with the deadly virus now detected in China, Laos, Vietnam, Japan, Cambodia, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan and Pakistan. The avian flu virus has killed at least eight people so far and threatens to develop into an epidemic worse than SARS that ravaged South East Asia last year.
Originally discovered in waterfowl and subsequently believed to be passed on to chickens, the avian flu strain first jumped from chicken to human in 1997 in Hong Kong, infecting 18 people and killing six of them. The virus containing the deadly H5N1 strain causes flu-like symptoms in humans ranging from sudden high fever, head-and body ache, fatigue and cough. Patients can on to develop lung infections and need to be isolated immediately.
Lee Jong-Wook, who heads the World Health Organisation (WHO), spoke on Wednesday of a "serious threat to global health" even as South East Asia’s poultry industry took a severe battering following export bans by several nations.
Brussels clamps import ban on Thai chicken
The European Union, the second largest buyer of Thai chicken, was quick to impose a ban on chicken meat exports from Thailand last week after Bangkok confirmed the avian flu outbreak. However the EU’s health and consumer protection commissioner, David Byrne came under fire for inadvertently supporting false claims by the Thai government that there was no avian flu in the country – four days before Brussels imposed the ban on Thai chicken exports.
Vendor and live chicken at a Malaysian market.
This week however, the 15-nation EU reinforced its hard line against Thailand, saying poultry imports will be off supermarket shelves in the European Union for at least five months. "An independent verification of measures taken by Thai authorities to eradicate the disease has to take place (before lifting the ban)," the European Commission’s Health and Consumer Protection spokeswoman Beate Gminder told a news conference. "Reliance on Thai assurances is not the best way forward." EU veterinary experts are to meet on Feb. 2-3 to discuss the situation with Thai authorities.
Gminder added that the length of the ban should be seen in relation to the Dutch case of bird flu last year. The Netherlands followed international rules for combating the virus and resumed chicken exports after five months.
On Wednesday France announced it had asked the European Commission to also ban the import of live birds from countries in Asia affected by the outbreak of bird flu. France’s agriculture, health and trade ministries said in a statement that the move would cover a ban on all live birds including pets arriving with passengers. Officials stressed that passengers travelling to affected countries in Asia should avoid all contact with live chickens and poultry markets.
Germany plays down consumer fears
The German government also sought to reassure consumers on Wednesday. The German Consumer Protection Ministry said in a statement that EU export bans on poultry products from Asia were sufficient to ward off the virus from European borders and stressed that existing older imports of chicken from the affected regions didn’t pose a threat to German consumers because the virus was killed if the meat was cooked properly.
Bernhard Fleischer, the director of the Hamburg Tropical Institute, said in a television interview on Wednesday that the risk of a bird flu infection in Germany was "absolutely minimal." Fleischer also ruled out the avian flu virus being imported into Germany through the luggage of tourists coming back to Europe from the affected regions. "The virus is not very stable and it would definitely be destroyed during a long haul, if it was there at all," he said.
Experts fear mutation of strain
But despite the reassurances that the virus stands little chance of making it to Europe, worries still persist that that the H5N1 avian flu virus might mate with human influenza and unleash a pandemic among people with no immunity to it.
The WHO fears that a new influenza pandemic could begin if humans become infected with human flu and bird flu viruses at the same time. WHO officials believe that co-infection could breed an entirely new virus that could spread from person to person. Doctors believe that humans can so far only catch the disease through exposure to live chickens.
But medical circles are now alarmed about the prospect of a sudden mutation which produces a strain of H5N1 capable of transmission between humans. There is already evidence that the H5N1 strain has become more virulent, judging by the unusually large number of ducks dying from bird flu in southern China. "If virulence goes up, it would trigger larger outbreaks and more poultry deaths...and this increases the chance of human to human transmission," virologist Keo Poon from the University of Hong Kong told Reuters news agency.