The discovery of swans carrying the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus in Germany this week is unlikely to be the end of the outbreak in the country, German Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer said on Thursday.
Swan's on Germany's north coast are the subject of a wave public concern over bird flu
Seehofer told the German parliament that the government expects more bird flu to be discovered after initial tests, which indicated two dead wild swans found on a Baltic Sea beach were infected with the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, the country's first cases of the diseases, were confirmed.
He said he had been informed by the German laboratory for veterinary medicine, the Friedrich Löffler Institute, that the swans "had the highly pathogenic type of the virus".
"It is a sub-type of H5N1, which first appeared among poultry in China last year," Seehofer said in a speech carried on German television. "Even with the most rigorous action we cannot assume that we will overcome this matter in a few weeks."
"Given the worldwide spread of this virus, we are expecting more cases in Germany," he said.
Horst Seehofer urged citizens to remain calm in the face of the outbreak
Seehofer's agriculture ministry issued a ban on keeping poultry out of doors on Wednesday, bringing the action forward to Feb. 17 after the ministry had changed the date to Feb. 20 from March 1 only hours before.
The rural northern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the infected swans were found, would be the first area to feel the immediate effect of the ban.
The state was left reeling after a further 40 dead swans were found near the area where the first cases were found.
Seehofer urged the German public to remain calm and reiterated the opinion of health experts by saying that there was no evidence the disease could yet be spread from human to human, although a mutation in the virus could make this possible if someone suffering from human flu contracts the disease.
Migrating birds mixing with poultry a big risk
The minister pointed to a heightened risk of the virus spreading across Europe as migrating birds start returning to the continent. "The return of migrating birds poses a big risk," he said, adding that the top priority must be given to preventing bird flu spreading to farm animals, especially poultry bred for consumption.
"We are dealing with a dangerous animal disease which also has potential danger to humans," he said. "The risk of the disease being spread by migrating birds must be regarded as considerably higher than previously. It is essential that we prevent the disease being transmitted from wild birds to domestic poultry."
Outbreaks of bird flu have now been recorded along the main migration routes.
Seehofer confirmed that a three-kilometer (two-mile) protection area had been set up around the island off northern Germany where the dead swans were found. A larger 10-kilometre surveillance zone is also in place around Rügen, which lies 50 kilometers from northwestern Poland.
Casual approach to dead swans criticized by politicians
The dead swans remained untouched as state authorities dithered
The Mecklenburg-Vorpommern authorities have been heavily criticized by a number of prominent German politicians for their casual reaction to the discovery of the dead birds.
Scenes of the dead swans lying over an expanse of beach showed little or no activity from state officials. There was a distinct lack of anyone attempting to clear away the corpses or examine them in order to find the causes of their deaths.
In response to the criticism, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state Environment and Farm Minister Till Backhaus admitted there had been some problems but blamed Germany's federal system for tying the hands of the state.
Under the federal system, local district councils had responsibility to collect and test dead birds and state authorities had no power to act.
Backhaus did add that he had been in contact with local councils and expected more rapid action.
Death toll yet to include EU victims
Measures are being taken in Europe to prevent the virus affecting the human population
Bird flu has already killed at least 90 people -- almost half those who caught it -- mostly in Southeast Asia and China where it first erupted but also in the Asian part of Turkey and northern Iraq.
In Europe, the presence of the H5N1 virus has been confirmed in Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Austria, Italy, Germany and the European part of Russia.
Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and Ukraine are among countries investigating possible outbreaks.