BRUSSELS, (AFP) – The growing threat of lethal bird flu spreading across Europe will soar to the top of EU leaders” menu this week, after the deadly Asian strain of the virus landed on the continent for the first time.
Scientists and the European Union”s political chiefs are battling to allay public panic after the H5N1 virus was confirmed in Romania at the weekend, only two days after its presence was identified in Turkey.
EU foreign ministers will discuss the outbreak at emergency talks in Luxembourg Tuesday, while the bird flu scare will inevitably dominate the agenda of a meeting of EU health ministers later in the week.
The World Health Organization immediately voiced concern at the Romanian outbreak — and while reiterating there was no need for excessive concern, admitted the risk of bird-to-human transfer has increased.
"The presence of this virus in Romania worries us, because it proves that it is in the birds” environment, and that increases the possibility of transmission to humans," said a spokesman in Geneva.
The EU had already banned imports of birds and poultry products from both Turkey and Romania last week after the presence of bird flu was confirmed in the two countries, thought to have arrived via migratory birds from further east.
But on Saturday the scientists confirmed Europeans” worst fears: the highly pathogenic Asian strain had been found in three ducks found dead in the Danube Delta, on Romania”s Black Sea coast.
"The virus taken from (the Romanian village of) Ceamurlia de Jos is indeed the H5N1," Romanian arm minister Gheorghe Flutur said. "We are discussing what measures are needed to strengthen the protection zone around the source."
While avian influenza primarily affects birds, the H5N1 strain has killed more than 60 people in Southeast Asia since 2003.
The big fear among experts is that H5N1 may mutate, acquiring genes from the human influenza virus that would make it highly infectious as well as lethal — possibly killing millions worldwide as the influenza pandemic of 1918 did.
The EU commission has called on governments of the 25-nation bloc to stockpile anti-viral drugs, and says people at risk should ensure they are vaccinated against regular influenza.
EU veterinary experts have also demanded immediate action to prevent migratory birds which could carry the deadly virus from coming into contact with poultry, including by moving farmed birds indoors.
High-risk areas include anywhere that migratory birds might be likely to use, such as wetlands, where scientists recommend the installation of early warning systems.
At the same time they are keen not to fuel panic.
"Information from the outbreaks of avian influenza (in Romania and Turkey) suggests that the disease remains confined to poultry and wild birds and at this stage no human cases have been confirmed," they said Friday.
"Therefore at present avian influenza does not represent a risk to the general public," they added.
But the official calls for calm have not prevented a rush for anti-viral drugs, which stocks reported running short in some countries.
Fueling further concern, a study released Friday said researchers had identified a mutated form of H5N1 bird flu that is resistant to Tamiflu, the drug being stockpiled around the world to counter a feared influenza pandemic.
The study is due to be published next Thursday in Nature, the British science weekly, but the journal decided to bring forward its release because of its importance.
European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso said at the weekend that the EU is ready to take "more drastic and radical measures" if necessary, depending on how the situaution evolves.
While the focus is on Europe”s bird flu scare, the United States is also clearly watching the situation closely — with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling in Paris Friday for "transparency" about the threat.
"The world should not be caught unaware by a very dangerous pandemic because certain countries refuse to share information. That is a very strong concern," she said.