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EU Worried by Bird Flu

DW staff (sms)February 5, 2007

As British authorities said they were nearly finished gassing some 160,000 birds on Monday, officials around Europe were concerned the potentially lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu could spread across the continent.

Thousands of fowl have been destroyed at Europe's largest turkey farmImage: AP

European Union experts are scheduled to meet on Tuesday to discuss the possibility of a widespread reoccurrence of bird flu in the EU after the virus was found Saturday on a turkey farm in England as well as in Hungary last month.

It remains unclear how the animals at the EU's largest turkey farm were infected with H5N1, although Britain's deputy chief veterinary officer said it may have been through a wild bird. The strain found is similar to the Hungarian outbreak of Asian H5N1, detected among geese.

Wildgänse in den Elbtalauen
The H5N1 strain was found in Hungarian geese in JanuaryImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Bernard Matthews Foods denied the chance of the virus being spread from its Hungarian farms to its operations in eastern England.

"The fact that we have a Hungarian operation is immaterial," the spokesman told Britain's The Guardian newspaper.

Fourteen EU members were affected by the virus at the peak of the European bird flu crisis in 2005 and 2006 and the discovery of the deadly flu strain in Britain has sparked precautionary measures in other European countries as national governments remain concerned about the virus that was last detected in Germany in August 2006.

EU tightening fowl controls

The British government put in created a three-kilometer (1.8-mile) protection zone and 10-kilometer surveillance area around the Bernard Matthews farm, Europe's largest turkey farm, to quarantine the outbreak.

British chief scientist Sir David King played down the chances of the virus spreading.

Vogelgrippe - Schutzzonen
UK officials are confident the outbreak has been containedImage: AP

"I'm really confident this is not going to spread to other poultry holder," he said.

The Dutch agriculture ministry announced it was putting extra protective measures in place, Norway issued restrictions on the keeping of poultry while France evaluated the risk to its flocks and Ireland to put laboratories on alert.

Poultry farmers in Ireland were also told to be extra vigilant in keeping their stocks out of contact with wild birds.

"Poultry keepers should watch their birds very closely," Northern Ireland's Chief Veterinary Officer Bert Houston said.

Europe's false sense of security

World Health Organization spokesman Gregory Hartl said countries should be aware that the H5N1 virus could mutate to become transmissible between humans just as easily in Europe as in Asian or African countries.

"A mutation could occur anywhere," Hartl said. "Someone was saying in relation to the British outbreak, 'Oh, it won't happen in Europe.' That's really a kind of false security that is being built up."

Vogelgrippe in Brandenburg - Schwäne Wildgänse
Health officials fear the virus could spread to humansImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The virus, which has killed 142 people in southeast Asia and 165 worldwide since resurfacing in 2003, does not appear to be mutating into a form easily transmissible between humans, according to David Nabarro, the UN official heading the global fight against avian influenza.

More cases likely

Nabarro, however, added that he expected more cases of the virus to turn up.

"I am expecting to see outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in a number of locations over the next three or four months, and I am basing it on what happened last year," he told the AFP news agency.

"During the time that I've been in this job, I have seen no increase in the risk of a pandemic," Nabarro said.

Farm workers, many of whom are migrants from Portugal, and those involved in the cull have been given anti-viral drugs, and none of the affected bird entered the food chain, Bernard Matthews said.