Despite assurances from the government, scientific institutes and the World Health Organization (WHO), Germans are starting to panic that bird flu may be coming their way.
Experts fear the H5N1 strain of bird flu (gold) could endanger people
Germans have reportedly been inundating doctors' offices to get prescriptions for anti-viral drugs to fight influenza. Pharmacies have reported that the demand for Tamiflu, in particular, the prescription-only medicine recommended by the WHO and the European Union to treat eventual infections, has surged.
"The demand was extremely high in recent weeks," Christiane Eckert-Lill of German national pharmacy association ABDA said on Thursday. In August alone, 79,000 packages of Tamiflu were sold. The same time last year only around 900 packages had been sold, she said.
Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, which makes Tamiflu, has seen its share price rise to an all-time high as the news broke that avian flu had been detected in Romania.
A veterinary expert disinfects the area where slaughtered chickens were buried in the village of Kiziksa, western Turkey
Germany's farmers' association have accused the government of not taking the threat of bird flu seriously enough since the virus was detected in poultry in Turkey and Romania. The farmers say poultry owners should be required to keep their birds in stalls to prevent the virus from infecting wild fowl. Policing the country's borders and points of entry, which the national task force decided Thursday, was not enough, they said.
But interim Consumer Affairs and Agriculture Minister Jürgen Trittin said the risk is "low to moderate" that migratory birds will carry the virus to Germany, since at this time of year they are flying south for the winter. He said that illegal animal transports and travelers posed the greatest danger, which was why the government has singled out more intensive border controls, at airports too, to prevent the spread.
Trittin was backed up by the National Research Institute for Animal Health, the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, which said on Friday that there was still no need to confine poultry to stalls, even if the Romanian cases were confirmed to have been infected with the more aggressive H5N1 strain of the virus.
Some German poultry farmers have no stalls to confine their animals if they are required to do so
The European Commission is expected to announce on Saturday whether the birds in Romania were infected by the H5N1 strain or a weaker one. On Thursday the EU confirmed that H5N1 had been found in the Turkish samples.
Germany's Robert Koch Institute (RKI) warned that people should not dramatize the situation. "We musn't be afraid," RKI chief Reinhard Kurth said Thursday on public television station ARD. Though the more the virus spreads, the greater the risk that the aggressive H5N1 strain could mutate into a virus more dangerous to humans, it remains so far a disease restricted to animals, he explained. "That's why we should remain relatively relaxed, which does not mean inattentive."
WHO alarm level stable
Poultry farmers are on the alert
The World Health Organization also tired to assure people. "We are not in the presence of a human pandemic and the fact that the H5N1 virus has arrived at Europe's doors does not mean that we need a change in strategy," Roberto Bertollini, head of the European branch of the World Health Organization, said in a press conference in Rome on Thursday.
In Geneva, the WHO issued a statement on the spread of the virus to Turkey and Romania, noting that, "All evidence to date indicates that the H5N1 virus does not spread easily from birds to infect humans." It added that people who have fallen ill after possible contact with infected birds should be monitored, but that because the initial symptoms of the avian flu virus were similar to those of the common flu, false alarms were likely. The organization confirmed it was not changing its alert level for a pandemic.