France and the Netherlands have won the go-ahead to vaccinate millions of chickens, ducks and geese, as the EU said there was no prospect of eradicating the H5N1 flu virus from Europe's wild bird population.
The decision to allow inoculation to start came after three days of talks, with ministers and scientists divided on whether it would stop the infection spreading to commercial poultry.
But under fierce pressure from the French and Dutch authorities, European officials agreed to allow them to proceed subject to a series of stringent conditions.
France intends to vaccinate only around 900,000 ducks and geese in three départments - Landes, Vendée and Loire-Atlantique - where it is judged impractical to bring poultry indoors to avoid the risk of contact with migratory birds.
The Netherlands wants people who own chickens for a hobby, and those who have free-range laying hens, to use the inoculations. Around five million birds are likely to be treated.
Both countries have ordered most poultry to be brought inside to cut the risk of infection.
Governments have been divided over whether vaccinating poultry protects against H5N1 or risks masking its presence in vaccinated flocks. Four countries abstained yesterday and several more are sceptical that the policy justifies the cost, effort and potential loss of exports.
Thailand, Oman, Egypt, Ecuador and the United Arab Emirates have banned imports of some European poultry and more nations are likely to follow.
An EU official described the vaccination programmes as "pilot projects", adding that farmers would have to accept that, for the foreseeable future, the virus would be present in wild birds in Europe with the constant risk of infection of poultry. "We have no prospect of eradicating the virus in Europe - or in neighbouring countries - in the near future," he said.
French and Dutch farmers will be allowed to sell poultry meat and eggs from vaccinated animals normally, without indicating its origin to consumers. But they will be subject to strict conditions including controls on movements and a requirement to use "sentinel", or unvaccinated, birds in flocks to act as a control. Vaccinated poultry must be kept apart from other poultry. Exports of inoculated bird meat will be treated normally, though live vaccinated birds may not be exported.
Seven EU nations have so far confirmed the H5N1 strain of bird flu: France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy and Greece.
So far there has been no case of the virus being spread from person to person, though H5N1 has killed more than 90 people throughout the world, all of whom were in close contact with poultry.Reuse content