Leading article: On a wing and a prayer

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What health experts had long predicted - and feared - appears to have happened: the bird flu virus has reached the borders of Europe. An outbreak has been detected among farm birds in Turkey and another possible case is being analysed in Romania. Tens of thousands of birds are being slaughtered. At this stage, the operation is an animal health issue. The culling is to stop the infection spreading within and between flocks. There is no evidence, as yet, that this is the deadly strain of bird flu that can be caught by humans, although the all-clear is contingent on test results to be released later this week.

But this serves as a timely reminder of the need for national governments to be alive to the threat posed by an avian flu pandemic. We must not lose sight of the potential deadly threat of the H5N1 strain of bird flu. It has killed 50 per cent of those who have become infected. And if this lethal virus mutates and becomes transmissible from human to human it has the potential to spread with terrifying speed. The problem is that infected people take time to develop symptoms. In this age of global travel, they can be half way around the world in a single day before they know they are infected. So can the virus.

Britain is an island on the edge of Europe, but we are just as much at risk as many other nations. Migratory birds are H5N1 carriers and Britain is on their route. The Government must be prepared to face down the farming industry and order the culling of thousands of poultry if an outbreak occurs. This is the only way to prevent the spread of the virus. And to help human sufferers, our stockpiles of anti-viral drugs must be built up even further. It is very difficult to prevent someone catching the virus, but it is possible to save lives by alleviating their symptoms. The Government must also devise plans to quarantine communities if an outbreak occurs. More should be done at a European level too. The European Commission has rightly banned all Turkish live bird and feather imports, but this is not enough on its own. Some European countries are facing the pandemic relatively unprepared. It is in the interests of the entire EU to see that any outbreak is swiftly tackled. The efforts of individual governments will not be enough.

The bird flu virus does not respect national borders, as its rapid spread from south Asia has demonstrated. Anti-viral drugs and expertise must be ready to be deployed in Europe as soon there is a serious outbreak. At an international level, governments need to devote greater resources to developing more effective vaccines and epidemic surveillance. The danger remains real. We are perilously close to a global public health emergency.

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