EU draws up contingency plan to head off bird flu crisis

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The Independent Online

After the confirmed discovery of the lethal H5N1 type of the virus in Turkey, EU experts agreed measures yesterday that could lead to millions of chickens and turkeys being kept indoors to prevent contact with migrating birds. As alarm spread in Turkey, there was mounting anxiety about a second outbreak in Romania which has been identified as bird flu but, as yet, not of the H5NI variety. The results of tests, due to be processed by a laboratory in Weybridge yesterday, may now not be known until Monday because of delays in sending samples from Romania to the UK.

The EU is also sending experts to Bulgaria which has recorded suspicious bird deaths that have not yet been identified.

The H5NI strain has already killed 60 people in south-east Asia but it is difficult to contract and most of the victims have been those living in close proximity to poultry. The real fear is that the virus will mutate into a strain that is easily transmissible among humans, an outcome that could lead to a pandemic similar to that which killed an estimated 50 million people in 1918.

Each EU country will now be asked to define which areas, such as wetlands, are at maximum risk and apply measures to separate wild birds from poultry. Where necessary these include keeping free-range poultry indoors. All imports of live birds, poultry and feathers from Turkey and Romania have ceased.

The EU has pledged financial aid to Romania which said yesterday that it had detected two new cases of bird flu from the Danube delta village of Maliuc, 30km from the earlier cases found at Ceamurlia.

The European budget commissioner, Dalia Grybauskaite, promised that Brussels "will financially support Romania", adding: "Bird flu is a problem for Europe, not just for Romania."

Concern mounted in Turkey where officials carried out medical tests on nine people living near the source of the unexplained death of 40 pigeons. However, all were released after several hours of observation.

In Kiziksa, where the confirmed flu deaths occurred, veterinary officials in protective suites were culling the few remaining birds in the village. They have already killed some 8,600 birds in the western Turkish area, and plan to slaughter all within a three-kilometre radius.

A declaration from the World Health Organisation that the risk to humans remains "very low" failed to calm nerves. The French authorities estimated that between nine and 21 million citizens could be infected in the event of an influenza pandemic.

Marc van Ranst, a virologist at Leuven Catholic University, said that, should a pandemic arrive, 30m deaths worldwide was a "realistic" figure.

Germany has increased controls on its motorways and borders to prevent a spread inside the country.

No vaccine as yet exists against the virus, though work is underway to try to identify one. Anti-viral drugs such as Tamiflu are seen as a first of line defence against infection.

Some scientists believe poultry workers should be vaccinated against normal flu in an effort to reduce the risk of the virus mutating into one transmissible among humans.