Europe holds bird flu crisis talks

By Jeremy Smith

BRUSSELS - European bird flu experts are to hold an emergency meeting today, a day after health officials confirmed what many had long feared was inevitable -- the spread of the deadly H5N1 strain from Asia to Europe.

British scientists are also scrutinising bird flu samples from Romania to determine whether the virus found in three ducks in the Danube Delta last week was H5N1, which has killed more than 60 people in Asia since 2003.

Romania sent the samples to a British laboratory on Thursday afternoon local time, and Britain's chief vet said she expected the final results to be known sometime on Friday.

EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said on Thursday a bird flu outbreak in Turkey was indeed H5N1 -- which first surfaced in Hong Kong eight years ago -- and that Europe should prepare for a pandemic.

New Zealand health officials said it was no surprise bird flu had reached Europe.

Director of Public Health Mark Jacobs said the Ministry of Health's approach has been that another flu pandemic is inevitable, though it is unknown whether the current bird flu outbreak, or some other strain of, would be responsible.

He said efforts and detail are being put into a national pandemic plan.

H5N1 is considered the biggest direct disease threat to humanity. Experts estimate that, if it acquires the ability to infect people easily and spread from person to person efficiently, it will make more than 25 million people seriously ill and kill as many as 7 million.

European countries tightened border controls on poultry and poultry products but fear the real threat may come from the skies as returning migratory birds bring the virus home.

The European Commission said Friday's emergency meeting would look at the risk migratory birds might pose for the EU.

"The experts' groups will then issue recommendations on the potential risk for humans in contact with such birds," it said in a statement.

Avian flu is currently transmitted to humans only if they eat or live in close contact with infected birds. But scientists say the H5N1 strain is mutating towards a form that could pass between humans.

Migratory birds, usually wild ducks, are a natural reservoir of avian influenza viruses and do not usually become sick when infected. Domestic poultry, including chickens and turkeys, die quickly when infected.

Romania said it had detected bird flu in the delta of the Danube River, Europe's largest wetlands, which host huge numbers of migrant birds from Russia, Scandinavia, Poland and Germany.

The birds mainly move to warmer areas in North Africa including the Nile delta for winter.

EU veterinary experts are considering whether to impose a ban on outdoor poultry in high risk areas in European wetlands, to prevent contact with wild birds.

There were some early signs of alarm in Serbia, where people were reported to have bought 20,000 face-masks in two days, while Belgrade pharmacies had sold out of their stocks of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu.

In Germany, local media reported that surgeries were being inundated with people seeking vaccination against normal strains of flu, and a surge in private demand for anti-viral drugs.

Tamiflu is an anti-viral drug made by Roche, Relenza a rival product made by GlaxoSmithKline. The European Commission has advised member states to stockpile them.

Poland also reported demand for flu jabs was rising, but said it was unclear whether this was linked to bird flu.

- REUTERS, NEWSTALK ZB

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