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Europe

Opinion: Precaution or Alarmism?

Following the detection of bird flu in Europe, EU health ministers are meeting to discuss a plan of action. And as Germany tells farmers to halt free-range poultry rearing, Christiane Hoffmann asks if the threat is real.

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Where does responsibility stop and fear-mongering begin?

Exactly where is the line between protection and alarmism? Truth is, just now, no-one seems either willing or able to say, but it seems there is no urgent need to rush out and buy the anti-viral Tamiflu, nor indeed to stop eating chicken.

There are two fundamental issues, and they have to be separated. On the one hand there is the threat to animals and on the other, the danger posed to humans. First and foremost, bird flu is an animal epidemic, which has remained in the animal kingdom, where it has caused serious havoc.

Ten million birds have been culled in Asia over the past two years in a bid to stem the spread of the virus, but with migratory birds threatening to carry the flu all over the world, the measures have been of little use.

It is crucial to look at the conditions in which animals are kept. Germany's new regulation that poultry be confined to pens is both necessary and correct, but there is nonetheless the danger, that the situation could have a negative economic effect on organic farmers. But to draw such a conclusion would be wrong.

Old virus re-visits

There is nothing new about this poultry pest, in fact it has been recurring repeatedly over the past hundred years or so. Two years ago, for example, there was an outbreak of the virus in the Netherlands, but it was quickly contained.

Even the most rigorous precautions are unlikely to prevent the virus from reaching central Europe, but given the highly structured nature of precautionary measures in place in Europe, the chances of getting it under control once it arrives, are very good.

By contrast, countries in the Middle East and northern and eastern Africa are more likely to struggle to contain any outbreaks of the virus. The economic impact could be massive, which means such regions need support.

No human-to-human transmission

Thus far, humans have not proved very fertile breeding ground for the virus, as it is cannot be transmitted among people. Although it can be fatal for human beings, it can only be contracted through extremely close contact with poultry -- with blood or excrement -- for example through slaughter.

There is, however, a hovering fear that if the virus were to mutate and become contagious among humans, it could trigger a pandemic. The talk is of millions of deaths worldwide, and the more often that figure is repeated, the more threatening it becomes.

Scientists are particularly nervous because statistically speaking, a major outbreak of flu is long overdue. There are fears that the H5N1 virus could develop into such a super-virus, but there is no certainty about that. It could, of course, be a completely different virus which sparks an epidemic, and that could happen next year, in twenty years time, or not at all.

In real terms, it's a good idea to take precautions such as stockpiling medication but there is no need for concern or panic reactions, and to play on the fears of people through repeated references to a possible pandemic is quite simply irresponsible.

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