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Bird Flu Confirmed in Greece, Fears Mount

DW staff (tkw)October 18, 2005

Concerns over the spread of bird flu in Europe continued to grow after a related form of the H5N1 virus was discovered in Greece as consumers across Europe begin losing their appetite for chicken.

The risk of infected poultry is rising in EuropeImage: dpa - Bildfunk

The Greek agriculture ministry said it had detected the H5 strain of the virus -- of which the deadly H5N1 is a member -- on the Aegean islet of Inoussess off the island of Chios, just a few miles from Turkey, which has also confirmed cases of bird flu.

The Greek authorities, which took nine samples from poultry on the islet last week found the presence of the H5 strain in a turkey, but have not yet confirmed whether it is the deadly strain.

Agriculture Minister Evangelos Bassiakos said experts would need "seven or eight days" to carry out further tests to establish exactly what they are dealing with.

Vogelgrippe - Gänsezucht
The EU is taking the threat of the virus seriouslyImage: dpa

If confirmed as the H5N1 strain, which has already claimed 60 lives in Asia, it would be the first case in the European Union. The infected turkey came from a small private poultry farm on the tiny island, and the authorities there have confirmed that they will cull all the other birds and medically examine the farmer's family.

The European Union Commission responded to the latest discovery by saying it would ban the export of live birds and bird related products from the Chios area. And the island's prefect, Polidoras Lambrinoudis told the Reuters news agency that no poultry or eggs were now allowed to leave the island.

"Risk to human health is conceivable, but minimal"

So far, there have been no human cases of bird flu reported in Europe, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned European nations not to divert funding and attention away from Asia, which is the most likely breeding ground for the mutation of the virus into a form which is easily transmitted between humans.

Peter Cordingly of the WHO says there is a lot of anxiety in Europe which could mean that "governments might focus on domestic preparedness and forget the fact that ground zero is Southeast Asia."

Vogelgrippe Ein infiziertes Huhn versucht den Flammen zu entkommen Bali Indonesien
Millions of birds have been culled in Southeast AsiaImage: AP

Health experts say that the fight against bird flu is being hampered by huge differences in wealth between nations. Some countries have poor public health infrastructures and no stockpiles of the expensive anti-viral drugs which could help to limit a human pandemic. Millions of birds in the region have already been culled in an attempt to stop the spread of the H5N1 strain, which first emerged in Hong Kong in 1997.

Europe is keen to strike a balance between testing for outbreaks of the deadly bird flu and the need to play down the threat to the public.

"The risk to human health, to public health, is minimal," Zsuzanna Jakab, the director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) told a news conference. "It is conceivable, but minimal."

But WHO Influenza Program Director Klaus Stoehr warns of the devastating consequences if the disease is not contained.

"We don't know whether a pandemic will break out in the coming weeks, months, or only in years. But there's no question that if such a pandemic occurs we'll be looking at hundreds of thousands or even millions of deaths worldwide," he said.

Chicken is off the menu

Consumers across Europe are responding to the westward spread of bird flu by turning away from chicken and other poultry. Reassurances that cooking chicken at temperatures above 160 degrees Fahrenheit destroys the virus have done little to allay fears, with farmers and supermarkets across much of the continent reporting a drop in sales.

Consumers in southern Europe are reportedly off poultryImage: dpa

Farmers in Turkey say that poultry sales have fallen by 50 percent, and several restaurants have already removed white meat from their menus. Even France has reported a ten percent slíde in poultry deliveries, and one supermarket chain, Systeme U, said sales had slumped by as much as 30 percent over the past few days.

The trend was echoed in Switzerland, Italy and Hungary, which shares a border with Romania where cases of the deadly disease were discovered earlier this month.

By contrast consumers in a number of northern European countries, including Britain and Denmark have not started to rethink their menus, and farming representatives in both Belgium and the Netherlands say there has been no noticeable change in poultry consumption.

The German federation for the poultry industry, which represents 8,000 farms, stressed that German consumers had not lost their appetite for white meat.