Europe drafts new law to prevent bird flu epidemics

BRUSSELS, Belgium, April 28, 2005 (ENS): Europe will soon have a new law to control bird flu viruses that do not cause serious disease to keep them from mutating into viruses that do. The highly pathogenic virus forms have caused the most dramatic epidemics among birds and are most likely to harm human health.

There is growing concern about the human health implications if a strain of avian influenza would mutate into a virus that is transmissible between humans.

Today the European Commission adopted a proposal to update bird flu control measures across the EU's 25 member states. The new legislation will require EU states to introduce and reinforce surveillance and control measures against the low pathogenic viruses, aiming to prevent virus mutation into highly pathogenic forms of the disease.

The updated measures proposed today are based on lessons learned from recent epidemics and new scientific knowledge.

EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said, “The current situation in Asia and recent outbreaks of avian flu in the EU has shown us how devastating the social and economic consequences of this disease can be. Beyond the known impact on animal health and welfare, there is a real fear that a mutant strain of avian flu could cause a human influenza pandemic."

Controlling past bird flu outbreaks has proven to be costly and "created animal welfare issues related to the mass slaughter of animals," the Commission said.

There are various strains of the avian influenza virus, with the high pathogenic strains having almost 100 percent fatality rates.

Because low pathogenic strains of bird flu generally do not cause serious disease, existing EU legislation on avian flu does not set out specific EU level measures against these strains. But low pathogenic strains crop up continually.

Italy, where the disease was first identified in the early 1900s, found a low pathogenic strain of bird flu in turkeys just last week.

The Commission said April 20 that the outbreak of the H5N2 viral strain in the northern part of the country does not pose a threat to public health. It is different from the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain that has caused over 125 million birds to die or be culled in eight Asian countries since December 2003.

Italian authorities will vaccinate birds in the area, the official said.

Russia's Agriculture Ministry said it has suspended imports of poultry and poultry products from Italy to prevent the spread of bird flu.

Recent major outbreaks of avian flu occurred in Italy in 1999-2000, and in the Netherlands, with incidences in Belgium and Germany in 2003. The outbreak in the Netherlands led to the destruction of some 30 million birds and direct economic costs of more than €150 million (US$193 million).

The new legislative proposal is based on lessons learned from recent epidemics, new scientific knowledge on the pathogenesis of the disease, how it spreads, and the risks to human health.

Wild birds are often carriers of the low pathogenic strains of the virus without showing any symptoms, and contact of domestic flocks with wild migratory birds has been at the origin of many epidemics in poultry. Avian influenza can occasionally spread to humans and other animals, usually following direct contact with infected birds.

"This proposal aims to set up the best possible system to prevent new outbreaks of avian flu in the EU, to swiftly manage those that do occur and to minimize their negative impact," said Kyprianou.

The new measures are more flexible than the existing law regarding vaccination. The use of vaccination will always be strictly monitored and the EU rules will require that vaccinated birds can be differentiated from infected birds, an important distinction for disease control and trade purposes.

The measures proposed will be managed so that restrictions on the trade in poultry and poultry products from the vaccinated areas can be minimized. Eventual restrictions on trade will be decided on a case-by-case basis, the Commission said.

In any case, restrictions will only be applied to the specific regions using vaccination, or even compartments within those regions. All areas of the EU not using vaccination will be able to continue to trade normally.

The draft Directive adopted by the Commission today will have to be approved by the Council of Ministers after consultation of the European Parliament. It is expected to enter into force January 1, 2007. The previous legislation on avian influenza will then be repealed.

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