Europe moves fast on bird flu

As German poultry farmers on the bucolic island of Rügen began killing their stocks over the weekend, European Union officials assured citizens that they are well prepared to handle the bird flu.

"We need to react calmly," said Markos Kyprianou, the EU's health and consumer protection commissioner.

Europeans seem to be heeding his advice so far. The H5N1 virus has been confirmed in wild swans and ducks in Austria, France, and Germany in the past week but it has not jumped to domesticated poultry or humans.

Europe's agricultural officials are learning from Vietnam - which has stopped the avian flu - and their own past brushes with the virus as they take steps ranging from keeping free-range poultry indoors to the immediate culling of poultry stocks, and the creation of buffer zones around affected farms.

"You have to react very promptly and immediately, that is the lesson we've learned from 2003," says Cees Vermeeren of the Brussels-based European poultry lobbying organization AVEC.

Farmers in Germany have already killed 2,500 birds. The culling is intended to avoid the outbreak that gripped Belgium and the Netherlands in 2003, when Dutch officials ordered 30 million birds killed.

But like many European Union initiatives, strategies on the best way to prevent infection among birds differ. France and the Netherlands have asked the European Union to grant them special permission to vaccinate their poultry populations. The EU disapproves of the method. Critics argue that the vaccine keeps the poultry alive, but allows the virus to spread undetected through bird populations.

Dutch officials and experts argue that vaccination is the only way to protect their industry from the financially devastating culls it experienced in 2003. "We know what it is to have avian influenza, we know how difficult it is to eradicate it," says Johan Bongers, a veterinarian at the Central Institute for Animal Disease Control in Lelystad, the Netherlands. "That's why we are in favor of vaccination."

Southeast Asian countries have had success with vaccinations and culling. After suffering the virus's worst human toll - 42 deaths out of 93 confirmed cases worldwide since 2003 - Vietnam has managed to stamp out bird flu in domestic bird populations in the past year. No new cases have been reported since December. Vietnamese officials killed five million birds and vaccinated 242 million in five months in 2005, and another round of vaccinations began last week.

But health officials warn against drawing comparisons between Europe and Vietnam, where humans and poultry, raised in rural backyards, are in far closer contact.

"Certainly the measures that have been taken [in Vietnam] will have contributed to the [improved] situation, but there may be other factors that we're not yet aware of," says Dida Connor, a spokesperson for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The Dutch government is reportedly seeking to vaccinate about 5.5 million birds. After confirming their first case of infection in a wild duck found dead near Lyon, France, the world's fourth largest poultry producer is expected to follow suit.

Germany, which successfully contained a small outbreak in 2003, has also ordered farmers to keep free-range fowl cooped up. More than 200 Bundeswehr soldiers specializing in chemical and biological weapons attacks helped state officials set up disinfection baths for cars coming out of Rügen over the weekend. Health authorities in the state of Mecklenburg Western Pomerania, where Rügen is located, ordered local farmers whose animals might have had contact with wild swans, to cull their stocks.

"I can understand these measures because we have regular visitors, products that we sell from our farm, and we have a restaurant," says Holger Kliewe, a Rügen farmer forced to kill his 2,000 geese, ducks and chickens on Sunday.

But Mr. Kliewe, who has run his farm and hotel since 1991, worries about the money he's losing. Guests planning to visit during Easter vacation have already begun calling to cancel their reservations.

The WHO says thoroughly cooked poultry meat and eggs are safe to eat.

Kliewe says it's still unclear if state authorities will compensate him for the culled poultry. The poultry association AVEC says it is too early to tell how much damage the virus could do to Europe's industry. Tens of millions of birds were destroyed in Asia, and poultry farmers in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania have been hit by EU import bans since the virus was discovered there last fall.

France has already seen a 15 percent drop in the amount of poultry sold in the last week, according to media reports. Italy, which is the world's fifth largest producer behind France, said its sales have dropped as much as 70 percent. Both countries said they will ask the EU for permission to boost compensation to farmers for birds lost through culling. AVEC's Vermeeren said other business sectors, such as the grain industry, will be affected as well.

The poultry industry "is important, because we are a main user of cereals in the European Union," he says. "And that means that the impact is not limited to just the poultry sector."

Turkey remains the only European country so far where the virus has been diagnosed in humans. Though health officials in Europe are keeping a wary eye on house pets, virologists caution against overreaction.

"At the moment, we can still observe cautiously but calmly," says Uwe Truyen, managing director of the Institute of Animal Hygiene and Veterinary Health, in Leipzig, Germany.

Simon Montlake contributed to this report from Bangkok, Thailand.

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