The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Jittery EU plays down bird flu threat

Bucharest, Oct. 17 (Reuters): Europe strove today to balance moves to test for outbreaks of deadly bird flu with keeping people calm and avoiding widespread panic after the disease was found in Turkey and Romania.

Romania recorded no new cases of bird flu after a mass cull of poultry today, but its jittery neighbours and European countries on migratory routes stepped up testing of birds to prevent the disease’s spread.

US health secretary Mike Leavitt, speaking in Asia where more than 60 people have died from the H5N1 strain of avian influenza and the most likely epicentre of any human pandemic, warned no nation was properly prepared for a bird flu pandemic.

No human cases have been reported in Europe, but the World Health Organisation said it was concerned European countries might now divert funding and attention away from southeast Asia which was the most likely ground zero for any serious pandemic.

Leavitt hammered home the threat of bird flu spreading. “If one thinks of the world as though it were a vast forest, if there is a spark in the forest and you are there to see it, you are able to simply snuff it out,” Leavitt said, adding: “However, if it’s allowed to burn for an hour or two hours, it often becomes uncontainable.”

The feared mutation of the virus into a form that is easily transmitted between humans is most likely in southeast Asia, where millions of birds were culled to try halt the disease’s spread, said Peter Cordingley, spokesman for the WHO in Manila.

The H5N1 strain first emerged in Hong Kong in 1997, when it caused the death or destruction of 1.5 million birds. Eighteen people fell ill, of whom six died. It re-emerged in 2003 in South Korea, and has now spread to China, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Turkey and Romania.

H5N1 has infected 117 people in four countries and killed 60, according to the WHO.

While the EU appealed to countries to test dead birds, the EU centre for communicable diseases tried to play down the threat to the public.

“The risk to human health, to public health, is minimal,” Zsuzanna Jakab, the director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said. “It is conceivable, but minimal.”

Nevertheless, governments insisted on vigilance and extra surveillance of birds that could carry the disease.

“It is important to say that there’s no reason to panic and that finding a dead pigeon or sparrow is no cause for alarm,” said Montenegro chief veterinarian Ivan Popovic. “Finding several dead ducks or other wetland birds, now that could be dangerous.”

Despite Romania’s assurances that no new cases had been found, neighbouring Bulgaria was preparing a national crisis headquarters after stepping up border controls and surveillance of poultry farms and wetlands near its Danube river boundary.

Bulgaria, which also borders Turkey that confirmed H5N1 among domestic fowl last week, has tested scores of dead birds.

Greece was waiting for results on eight dead birds found in the northeastern Evros river delta. In another main migratory route, Croatia had started testing dead birds found by citizens.

“There’s a lot of anxiety (in Europe),” the WHO’s Cordingley said. “Quite clearly, the result of this could be that governments might focus on domestic preparedness and forget the fact that ground zero is southeast Asia.”

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