European Union Foreign Ministers, who met in Luxembourg on Tuesday, are seeking to allay public fears of an influenza pandemic following the detection of bird flu in three countries in the south of the continent.
Confining poultry in coops can help contain the spread of bird flu
The ministers met for emergency talks after a case of avian flu was discovered on a small Aegean island. Although it is not yet known whether it was a case of the deadly H5N1 virus, the find followed confirmed cases of the fatal strain in both Romania and Turkey.
British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, said the meeting had been called in order to appeal for calm and to reassure the people of Europe that everything was being done to counter the health threat.
British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw
"So far there is no evidence of any transfer of the virus to human beings. Let us hope that remains the situation," he said.
"Members of the public are bound to be concerned and their concerns can be allayed if they are shown that every effort is being made by the European Union and by member states to effectively coordinate action against the outbreak of avian flu and to be fully prepared lest there is a transfer to human beings."
Speaking after the meeting, EU Health Commissioner, Markos Kyprianou reiterated the British Foreign Secretary's appeal against panic.
"The fact that we have avian flu in southeastern Europe does not increase the risk of a human flu pandemic," he told reporters.
International effort needed
A statement issued after the meeting said that the EU could not effectively tackle bird flu alone, adding that the council of ministers recognized avian influenza and the risk of a pandemic as global threats which required an international, coordinated response.
The World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday urged Europe not to detract attention from southeast Asia, which is considered fertile breeding ground for the flu virus. Unlike Europe, where no lives have been lost since the outbreak of bird flu, it has already killed 60 people in Asia.
Flu vaccination could become mandatory for some
Europeans have reacted to the detection of the virus on the continent with alarm, with many people rushing out to buy anti-flu drugs and flu vaccines. But Kyprianou has warned the public to seek advice before taking any drugs.
"They should be used with doctors' advice," he urged.
The European Commission is calling on member states to follow WHO guidelines in vaccinating 75 percent of people to whom flu poses the greatest risk, primarily children and the elderly. A program of mandatory vaccination would also have the effect of forcing pharmaceutical companies to increase the production of vaccines for use in the event of a pandemic.
Not enough drugs
The WHO recommends that countries stockpile enough anti-viral drugs to cover 25 percent of the population, but it was revealed last week that not all EU countries follow this. Swiss drug-maker Roche, which produces the anti-viral drug Tamiflu is coming under increasing pressure to grant other companies a license to make the drug.
Not enough Tamiflu to go round
Thawat Suntarjarn, head of Thailand's department of Disease Control, told the Reuters news agency that "every country is queuing up to buy Tamiflu from Roche and we are afraid we won't be able to get enough drugs when we need it, so we have to produce it ourselves."
The WHO has said that public health must overcome all obstacles in the trade and licensing area, and Roche has confirmed that it will consider allowing companies and governments in developing nations to produce the drug in preparation for a bird flu pandemic.
Besides all the talk of how to tackle such a potential killer virus, agricultural officials in Germany have issued guidelines to poultry farmers in a bid to prevent the virus from infecting home-grown stock. The farming association has called, where possible, for birds on the country's 100,000 farms to be housed in coops, or at the very least to be confined in nets in order to minimize contact with wild birds which could be carrying the virus.
Bavarian birds won't be at liberty to roam free from Wednesday
Bavaria has adopted the proposals and said poultry farming will become mandatory there from Wednesday, but other states say they will only make the guidelines compulsory in high risk areas, where, for example, migratory birds are known to rest.
Animal rights activists have also spoken out about ways of keeping the virus from infiltrating Germany. They say current luggage checks of people returning to Germany from countries such as Turkey should be significantly more rigorous, making it impossible for people to bring contaminated meat into the country.