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Germany

German Chancellor Alarmed by Bird Flu

Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed alarm over the rapid spread of bird fu on the Baltic island of Rügen. Military experts have been deployed to curb the disease as the number of infected birds rises to 59.

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The entire island of Rügen has been declared a controlled zone

Responding to growing nationwide fears concerning the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, Germany's chancellor made a surprise visit to a crisis management center on the Baltic Sea resort of Rügen.

Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel auf Rügen Vogelgrippe

Merkel with the district chief executive of Ruegen, Kerstin Kassner.

"The situation is indeed grave," Merkel said. "All in all, I'd say the situation is serious and we will continue monitoring it closely. If local authorities need assistance, the federal government sands ready to do everything in its powers to help."

Meanwhile, 18 new cases of avian influenza were confirmed on the island, bringing the country's total to 59. The number of new cases has skyrocketed in just a few days since the first dead bird was reported on Feb. 14.

The agriculture minister in the affected state of Mecklenburg-Western Pommerania, Till Backhaus, said the 18 new cases included swans, cormorants, geese and a buzzard. He said the state would begin slaughtering domestic fowl including chickens and ducks as a precautionary measure to prevent a broader outbreak of the virus.

"We have to eliminate every possible risk," Backhaus said. The entire island has now been declared a controlled zone.

Military lends hand

On Friday Germany began enforcing an order to keep all poultry indoors. The Netherlands, Slovenia, Denmark, France, Greece, Luxembourg and Sweden also have instituted mandatory lock-downs on poultry.

Vogelgrippe - Rügen wird Schutzzone

Bird Flu protective zone, the sign reads

To help enforce the quarantine zones and prevent the spread of the virus, 19 Bundeswehr army specialists have been deployed to Rügen. The anti-nuclear, biological and chemical weapons experts will focus on decontamination efforts. They will disinfect vehicles and people who may have come in contact with the virus, a defense ministry official said Sunday.

All vehicles and bicycles leaving the island had their tires decontaminated in special disinfectant baths. Pedestrians were told to have their shoes disinfected.

Responding to criticism

The intensified control efforts come after sharp criticism hailed down on local officials for failing to quickly close off areas where dead birds were found or properly police the quarantined zones.

Landwirtschaftsminister Horst Seehofer und Till Backhaus auf Rügen Vogelgrippe

German Minister for Agriculture, Horst Seehofer, left, and Till Backhaus surrounded by reporters

The island is popular with tourists and has been inundated with reporters since the outbreak earlier this week. The undeterred flow of media poses one of the biggest risks for spreading the disease, experts warn.

"The problem is that journalists get very close to the dead animals and also film the collection of cadavers," the president of the Friedrich Loeffler Institute for Animal Health, Thomas Mettenleiter, said.

"Then the camera teams go with their contaminated equipment and clothing directly where the birds are. That is completely irresponsible and exactly what we have been trying to prevent."

Growing hysteria

The intense media coverage of the dead birds on Rügen and rising fears among the population that the disease will spread to the German mainland have caused panic and near hysteria in parts of the country.

Stare sammeln sich

All birds are suddenly now under suspicion

After Merkel and German Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer urged Germans to be on the look out for dead birds and to contact authorities, emergency units in Berlin said they were swamped by calls from residents reporting dead birds.

A four-member fire brigade crew in protective suits rushed to one Berlin neighborhood on Saturday night to retrieve the carcass of a small blackbird. "It requires a massive effort every time someone calls the emergency number," one official said after the corpse was scooped up and taken to a lab for testing.

European spread

Six EU member states have now confirmed the presence of the lethal strain of the virus, which is spreading fast across the continent after surfacing in Turkey and central Europe. France was the most recent country to report a confirmed case of H5N1 on Saturday.

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