Past brushes and the devastation wreaked in Asia have taught Europe the dangers that bird flu brings with it. But there are differing notions in the EU on how best to stop its march.
France and the Netherlands want to go ahead with bird vaccinations
Given Europe's difficulty on agreeing on most things, it should probably come as no surprise that EU members have different ideas on how best to stop the spread of bird flu.
On Wednesday, France and the Netherlands received permission from the EU to begin vaccinating their bird populations against the avian virus H5N1. The strategy is highly controversial among experts and had previously been rejected by the EU as an appropriate way to stop the spread of the virus in domesticated bird populations.
"Our current methods of vaccination only mask the disease," German Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer told reporters outside of a meeting of EU agricultural ministers this week.
Critics argue that the vaccine doesn't prevent the poultry from catching the virus, though the vaccine does enable the virus to spread undetected through bird populations because the symptoms are reduced.
Sparing the poultry industry
But French and Dutch officials remain resolute. Holland's poultry industry was devastated by an outbreak of a similar virus in 2003. After starting in Belgium, the virus forced poultry farmers to cull 30 million birds in order to avoid further contamination.
"Each decision is a weighing of the advantages and the disadvantages," said Johan Bongers, a veterinarian at the Central Institute for Animal Disease Control in Lelystad, the Netherlands. "We know what it is to have avian influenza, we know how difficult it is to eradicate it. That's why we are in favor of vaccination."
Preventative measures are being undertaken in Germany
Bongers admits that the vaccines are not optimal. But he says improvements are being worked on at the moment. Vaccines have been used effectively in Southeast Asia -- where H5N1 has been wreaking havoc since 2003 -- but only as an additional measure to culling.
European Union regulations at the moment continue to favor culling. Once a domesticated bird has been infected, health officials are required to set up a three-kilometer (two-mile) buffer zone around the affected farm. Owners of that farm, as well as any other farm with potential for infection are required to kill their poultry stocks. Farmers in Germany on the northern island of Rügen, where the first infected swan was discovered, have already killed 2,500 birds as a precautionary measure.
Bad times ahead for Kliewe's farm
"That is a hard measure maybe, but there should be no hesitation," said Cees Vermeeren, of the Brussels-based European poultry lobbying organization AVEC, which doesn't recommend vaccination. "If you hesitate at the beginning, then you have lost the battle."
But culling also means massive economic losses for poultry farmers, something France -- the world's fourth-largest poultry producer -- is eager to avoid.
Culling could cost the poultry industry tens of millions of euros
Poultry farmers in northern Germany are already feeling the impact. On Sunday, Holger Kliewe was forced to kill 2,000 of the geese, ducks and chickens he breeds to sell to the tourists who come to his farm and hotel.
"I can understand these measures because we have regular visitors, products that we sell from our farm, and we have a restaurant," said Kliewe.
But, he added, "our means of production have been taken away completely." For a farmer like Kliewe, that means a loss of 70 percent of his income. The other 30 percent, tourism, is taking a hit as well.
No alarm, yet
"All of us on Rügen are suffering from a tarnished image," Kliewe said, adding that guests have already called to cancel their Easter vacation reservations. "The anti-flu measures will convince no one to come to the island in the near future. That's why we need this crisis to be contained as soon as possible."
Rügen is worried about a tarnished image
EU officials remain confident exactly that will happen. For all the sensational headlines European editorialists have indulged in since the discovery of infected swans (Germany's Bild tabloid splashed "The Fear is Growing" across its front page on Tuesday), the virus has yet to make the dangerous jump from wild fowl to domesticated birds.
"It will be a problem when the first domesticated poultry are infected," said Uwe Truyen, managing director of the Institute of Animal Hygiene and Veterinary Health at the University of Leipzig. "At the moment, we can still observe cautiously, but calmly."