Bird flu enters EU as Greece finds disease on island farm

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The Independent Online

Authorities in Greece identified the virus at a turkey farm on the island of Oinouses, near the Turkish coast. Tests are underway to determine whether it is the H5NI variety that has caused the deaths of 60 people in the Far East. If the potentially lethal strain is identified, it would be the first time the disease had entered EU territory.

H5N1 had already been discovered in Turkey and in Romania, sparking alarm across the continent, and prompting calls for EU nations to stockpile antiviral drugs. Yesterday, urgent tests were underway on dead birds found in Croatia, although the Bulgarian authorities said they had detected no cases of bird flu despite earlier alarms.

Last night, the Greek agriculture minister agreed to restrict the movement of live animals and poultry products from the affected area, the Chios region, as a precautionary measure. A formal ban is expected today if the test results prove positive.

As the EU braced itself for a major animal-health crisis, the British presidency of the EU put the issue on the agenda of talks in Luxembourg today. Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will attend the meeting, which will be chaired by the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw.

Ministers from Greece and Romania are expected to update their colleagues on the latest situation. A spokeswoman for the British presidency said: "This is an opportunity for ministers to consider recent developments and to be updated on the different strands of work."

Yesterday's discovery in Greece has heightened the state of alarm. Samples taken from the birds were undergoing virus-isolation tests in the national reference laboratory in Thessaloniki, and the European Commission also asked for separate scientific analysis to be conducted at the Community Reference Laboratory in Weybridge.

Public health officials appealed for calm, pointing out that the H5N1 virus is difficult to contract and that its victims have usually lived in close contact with poultry. The fear is that it will mutate into a strain easily transmissible among humans, causing a pandemic.

In Athens yesterday, the Greek agriculture minister, Evangelos Bassiakos, said that the infected turkey was one of around 20 birds in a small farm, and the only one infected out of the nine tested. On 13 October, the farm owner reported that he had noticed "strange symptoms and losses among the turkeys". A veterinary team from the nearby island of Chios travelled to Oinouses, and took samples from the suspect birds.

The ministry yesterday placed the farm under quarantine, banning the movement of all people, vehicles, animals, meat, eggs and carcasses from it without ministry permission. It also ordered an immediate disinfection of the farm.

Earlier tests on eight migratory birds found dead in the area of Evros, Greece's closest land border to Turkey, showed that the birds were not carrying the lethal strain.

The EU has banned all poultry imports from Turkey and Romania in an effort to limit the disease's spread, while the countries' authorities have culled thousands of domestic birds in the vicinity of outbreaks.

However the European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, has said that the EU would not hesitate to propose "drastic measures" to fight the spread of bird flu if current safeguards prove insufficient. Mild strains of bird flu have, in the past, provoked massive problems for farmers. In 2003, an outbreak in the Netherlands led to the slaughter of around 30 million birds.