EU nations declare bird flu a "global threat"


Tuesday, October 18th 2005, 5:35 am
By: News On 6


LUXEMBOURG (AP) _ European Union foreign ministers on Tuesday declared the spread of bird flu from Asia into Europe a ``global threat'' requiring broad international cooperation.

At a special meeting, the ministers were to issue a statement saying they recognize bird flu poses a serious, global health threat if it shifts from birds to human beings and one ``that requires a coordinated international reaction.''

One day after bird flu was recorded in Greece's Aegean Sea islands, they also called on the EU executive Commission to speed up the drafting of stronger EU rules designed to prevent, combat and eradicate bird flu.

On Tuesday, Greece banned the export of live birds and poultry meat from the area where the EU's first bird flu case was detected.

Poultry from Turkey and Romania have already been banned by the EU as bird flu found there was confirmed as being the deadly H5N1 strain. Tests were also being carried out on birds in Bulgaria and Croatia.

The draft EU statement referred to the need for the EU to coordinate any efforts to stamp out bird flu in consultation with specialized United Nations organizations. Officials stressed the EU does not consider bird flu to be a European problem but that it recognizes there is a threat of a pandemic.

The H5N1 bird flu strain has swept poultry populations in large swathes of Asia since 2003, jumping to humans and killing at least 61 people _ more than 40 of them in Vietnam _ and resulting in the deaths of tens of millions of birds.

Its spread westward by migrating wild fowl has intensified fears in Europe the virus may mutate into one that can be easily transmitted among humans _ a development that experts fear could provoke a global epidemic that puts millions of lives at risk.

The EU stepped up biosecurity measures and installed early detection systems along the migratory paths of birds to prevent contamination of domestic flocks.

But there are concerns that European nations lack stockpiles of vaccines and anti-virals to cope with a major outbreak.

Seeking to calm public fears, the head of the EU's new agency for disease prevention on Monday downplayed the current risk to humans.

``The risk to human health, to public health, at this stage is minimal,'' said Zsuzsanna Jakab of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

However, she said the Stockholm, Sweden-based agency was drawing up guidelines on how workers who deal with infected animals can protect themselves against infection.

``There is a little more risk for those who have directly worked with the infected animals, so our goal must be to further minimize that risk,'' Jakab said.

The World Health Organization recommends governments keep stocks of anti-viral drugs and regular human flu vaccines to inoculate at least 25 percent of their populations.

European officials say the 25 nations in the EU, as well as Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, have only 10 million doses now for an area of almost 500 million people, and will have only 46 million doses by the end of 2007.

Stockpiling vaccines is difficult as flu viruses can mutate quickly.

On Thursday, EU health ministers open a two-day meeting at a conference center in Hertfordshire, England, to assess the state of national bird flu preparedness.

There is no human vaccine for the current strain of bird flu but scientists believe the Tamiflu drug may help humans fight bird flu contraction.