European Union veterinary experts are holding talks in Brussels Wednesday to discuss the growing threat from bird flu. The deadly disease has now already reached four EU countries, including Germany.
The EU wants to spend more to track infected birds
It has come as a shock to health conscious Germany to learn that bird flu, once a mystery ailment from Asia, has now arrived on the picturesque Baltic Sea island of Rügen. Holidaymakers on an ferry found the lifeless remains of four swans on Friday, two of which initially tested positive for the deadly H5N1 strain of avian influenza.
Dick Thomson from the World Health Organization (WHO) said the virus was particularly worrying because it has been known to spread to humans.
"For the most part this is an animal disease. It is deadly to chickens and other birds, but this virus has been shown to leap to humans, which is unusual for an animal virus," he explained. "In half the cases we have identified, people have died from it."
Health officials warn people not to panic
Avian influenza cannot jump easily from one human to the next as normal influenza viruses can. However, scientists are worried that the two viruses, bird and human flu, could combine to produce a new virus that is both deadly and highly infectious -- the two ingredients required for a pandemic.
Germany takes action
Health officials in Germany as elsewhere are anxious to contain bird flu and keep it as far away from humans as possible. At a press conference on Tuesday, German Agriculture Minister Horst Seehofer stressed the urgency of the situation.
"We must do everything possible to ensure the virus is not passed from wild birds to domestic birds," he said and added that final confirmation of laboratory test results would come on Thursday.
"Emergency bird flu case" at Frankfurt Airport customs area
The government has declared a three-kilometer (two-mile) security zone around the place where the swans were discovered. It has also ordered all poultry farmers within 10 kilometers to immediately shut their livestock indoors. The ruling to keep poultry cooped up will apply across the whole of Germany starting Feb. 17.
Seehofer appealed to members of the public to report to the authorities any dead birds they may find in the countryside, but warned they should not under any circumstances touch the birds. "This is a very dangerous animal virus and there is also a risk for humans," he said. "All our efforts must be focused on eliminating the danger of spreading the virus to humans."
Preparing for the worst
Thomson of the WHO said acquiring the disease from animals is extremely rare, but one cannot be too careful.
"We have been encouraging governments to begin or continue with their pandemic preparedness. We have been encouraging them, if they have the resources, to stockpile certain materials which they may find helpful during a pandemic, to encourage the development of vaccines, to think through how they will handle a very sudden or massive demand for health care services and whether or not they want to cancel mass gatherings. These are all things countries need to think through," Thomson said.