The European Union has agreed on urgent new steps to counter outbreaks of potentially lethal bird flu, but urged consumers not to panic or avoid eating chicken despite the likelihood of new cases developing.
The EU's executive discussed emergency steps after bird flu arrived in Germany
The European Commission, the 25-nation bloc's executive arm, also said it expects more cases as warm spring weather brings a seasonal migration of swans and other wild birds carrying the disease into Europe.
As Germany became the latest EU country to confirm the lethal H5N1 strain of the disease, EU health experts agreed to ban all imports of untreated feathers to further reduce the "high risk" of the disease spreading.
"(Wednesday's) decision ... was taken in light of the rapid spread of avian influenza over the past months and the current high risk of the disease spreading further," said the European Commission in a statement.
So far, the H5N1 virus -- which in its highly pathogenic form can be fatal to humans -- has been detected within Europe in Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Greece, Italy, Romania, Slovenia and Ukraine.
Health commissioner Marko Kyprianou, attending the two days of talks with health experts from EU member states, underlined that there is unlikely to be an early end to the cases of bird flu.
"Given that the spring migration will begin soon we will review again the situation to see if there's need for additional methods ... We shouldn't be surprised if we have more migratory wild birds with this virus," he said.
"There's no need to panic," he warned. "We have to advise the European public to stay calm...There's no reason not to consume chicken."
The potentially lethal H5N1 strain has killed at least 90 people -- almost half those who caught it -- mostly in Southeast Asia and China where it first erupted but also in Turkey and northern Iraq.
EU fears transmission of virus into human food chain
The Commission said that the consumption of chicken is not a threat, at the moment
The big fear in the EU -- which is the world's third biggest exporter of poultry after the United States and Brazil -- is that the virus passes from migratory swans to chickens, or other birds in the human food chain.
The avian virus, first reported on Europe's southeastern flanks in early January, re-erupted with a vengeance last week, starting in Italy and Greece but now with almost daily cases in a string of European countries.
In Germany, authorities Wednesday set up the now-standard 10-kilometer (six-mile) surveillance zone around the site where the dead wild swans were found on the island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea.
Hours later Hungary confirmed that it had detected the H5-type virus in the bodies of three dead swans in the south of the country.
Bloc admits it is powerless to stop the disease arriving
Nothing can be done to prevent migratory birds landing in Europe
As the EU scrambles, some underline that there is basically little it can do to prevent the disease arriving. "We have absolutely no control over the introduction of the virus by migratory birds that are about to start returning from Africa to Siberia, Scandinavia and Greenland," said French food safety agency panelist Jean Hars. "It is unavoidable," he told reporters.
Until recently, the EU has said it is satisfied that the measures taken are sufficient.
But Brussels is closely monitoring the situation and if poultry should become infected, it may call for the culling of all birds and eggs on small holdings or farms. In addition the European Commission has proposed speeding up the process of clamping down on new outbreaks, by making arrangements automatic rather than on a case-by-case basis.
Experts assess "minimum risk" to poultry flocks
Meanwhile, health experts said Wednesday that migrant birds carrying the virus appear to pose only a limited risk to Western Europe's poultry flocks.
In contrast to Asia and Africa, where chickens, ducks and geese raised for the pot are generally grown in open fields and farmyards, most of the European Union's poultry spends its life in large, enclosed sheds.
Industrialized farms stand a good chance of remianing virus-free
"Migrating birds do not come into contact with fowl in these industrialized farms, so this is reassuring," said Jeanne Brugere-Picoux, a professor at the Alfort Veterinary School near Paris and a pathologist in bird diseases. "But precautions still have to be taken. Migrating birds are a risk, although the risk is more specifically for farmyard fowl which live out in the open and for domestic ducks," she said.
Julian Hughes, head of species conservation at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in Britain, said the biggest potential source of transmission was in ponds, lakes or wetlands. "The virus can be transmitted through a variety of ways," he told reporters.
"We know that the virus stays active within feces and in water for several days after it's been shed from the bird. But another route which is just as likely is direct contact, through nasal and bodily fluids, through the bill or the nose.”
"Ducks and geese congregate in large numbers, thousands of them together. They all feed together and when they roost at night, they tend to roost together in the middle of the water, so they are in pretty close contact."
Spread attributed in part to movement of diseased poultry
Free-range diseased poultry pose just as much threat as migratory birds
Hughes said it was quite possible that migrating birds could pick up the virus from infected poultry, rather than the other way round. And he called for a sense of proportion, noting that outbreaks of bird flu were chiefly caused by the movement of diseased poultry, not wildlife.
"The danger is that if everyone talks and concentrates on migratory birds, then bio-security measures get neglected," he said.
Trying to stamp out H5N1 in wild birds through culls "is going to be entirely ineffective, because there are millions of birds on the move," he said. "But you can do something about bio-security in the poultry sector."