Europe tightens avian flu security on farms, at borders

BRUSSELS, Belgium, August 25, 2005 (ENS): Europe has been free of the deadly strain of H5N1 avian influenza to date, but outbreaks in six Siberian villages over the past month have brought the disease to the doorstep of the European Union. EU veterinary experts from all 25 member states meeting today agreed there is "cause for serious concern."

The European Commission convened the veterinarians to discuss the bird flu situation in Asia and Siberia and decide what to do to keep the disease from spreading into the EU. Health officials worldwide have raised concerns about the illness mutating into a strain that could easily be passed between humans, triggering a global pandemic that could claim millions of lives.

Markos Kyprianou, commissioner for health and consumer protection, said, “We clearly want to do our utmost to prevent the spread of this devastating epidemic to the EU. We will continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure that the most appropriate risk-reducing measures are in place.”

The Commission asked all member states to step up surveillance and offered to make financing available to facilitate this effort.

In what is formally called the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health working group meeting on Avian Influenza, the veterinarians had an extensive discussion of the possibility of the disease spreading into the EU via migratory birds, particularly waterfowl.

They concluded there is not enough information available to determine to what extent the spread of the disease might have been caused by wild birds.

But on Monday, Dutch and Swedish researchers published a study in the journal "Emerging Infectious Diseases" showing that wild ducks, particularly mallards, can carry at least seven strains of avian flu virus.

Anders Wallensten and Albert Osterhaus at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, Netherlands and Umea University in Sweden wrote, "Because highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks in poultry find their origin in low pathogenic avian influenza viruses present in waterfowl, influenza A virus surveillance in wild birds could function as an early warning system."

Still, the expert group of veterinarians said that based on existing knowledge of the migratory routes of the species of birds that might pose a risk of spreading the virus, the immediate risk is "probably remote or low," depending on the area of the EU.

The experts rejected a generalized ban on keeping poultry outdoors. They decided the measure was not proportionate to the current risk of disease introduction through migratory birds.

Still, the veterinarians urged increasing sampling of migratory waterfowl along the flyways that could pose a risk of disease introduction.

The EU started intensive surveillance of domestic and wild birds in 2003 and has adjusted surveillance measures every year since then.

On February 6, 2004, the European Commission took a formal decision to suspend imports of poultry meat, poultry birds and other live birds from Cambodia, China and Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Pakistan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. In March 2005 the suspension was lifted for Japan and South Korea.

On August 19, the Commission suspended the import of poultry meat, birds and other live birds from Kazakhstan and Russia.

Experts agreed at the meeting to review contingency plans and increase vigilance to ensure that existing measures such as import bans are fully enforced.

They agreed that EU member states should introduce additional awareness programs to encourage farmers to further improve biosecurity measures and to assist the early detection of avian influenza should it occur. But the veterinarians noted that these programs "could comprise" distribution of generally understandable information - for example through leaflets and the press - on avian influenza.

The expert group said that "proper and reliable information on poultry products" should be provided to the consumers to prevent any lack of confidence from their side.

In addition they asked member states to "urgently review" and update the existing contingency plans which each state has for bird flu in accordance with European Community legislation specifying the national measures to be immediately applied in case of any suspicion or confirmation of the disease.

In this connection, they said, the need to provide adequate protection to poultry workers at risk of infection should be fully considered.

In an attempt to keep bird flu out of Europe, the vets say customs officers should ensure "thorough application of the existing measures and controls at the external borders of the European Union on any introduction of birds."

The veterinarians asked that special attention be paid to the import of birds other than poultry such as ornamental birds and pet birds and their products - both as commercial consignments and as personal luggage of passengers - to ensure that only commodities fulfilling the requirements established by Community legislation are imported.

Another meeting of the experts has been scheduled for early September, at which the Commission will coordinate the intensified surveillance, for which Community funding is available.

On September 22, a meeting of chief medical officers and chief veterinary officers is planned to discuss the co-ordination of veterinary and public health measures.

In the fall, the Commission is organizing a command-post exercise to test communications, exchanges of information and interaction between the competent authorities at the EU level and the coordination and inter-operability of national plans. A conference is planned after the exercise to evaluate the lessons learned and to prepare recommendations for improvements.

In 2003, a major outbreak of a different strain of avian flu occurred in the Netherlands and smaller outbreaks in bordering regions in Belgium and Germany. Thirty million birds were slaughtered and the outbreak was successfully halted.

Since 2003, the European Commission has been engaged in talks with European vaccine manufacturers to agree on a way to ensure sufficiency of influenza vaccines in the EU in the shortest possible time in case of a human pandemic.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2005. All Rights Reserved.

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