Europe Maps Out the Threat of Advancing Bird Flu

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By Daniel Williams and Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 21, 2005

ROME, Oct. 20 -- In Europe, the advance of bird flu from Asia is being monitored like a military invasion of Genghis Khan's hordes. Newspapers and television stations display maps with arrows representing migratory bird routes. Weak points in the continent's defenses -- neighboring countries with substandard poultry hygiene and locations of outbreaks -- are sometimes highlighted in red.

The latest red state is Macedonia, which followed Turkey and Romania in discovering and destroying sick poultry that apparently caught the flu from voyaging birds.

The European Union on Thursday took new steps to contain the disease, widening a ban on imports of pet birds and feathers from Russia, where culling of infected poultry continued. The 25-country group also moved to ban bird markets and exhibits and to make farmers move poultry into barns to prevent contact with wildfowl. At the Berlin Zoo, workers penned in ducks and an Australian emu as a precaution.

But there is little agreement about the actual danger. The H5N1 virus that gives birds the disease does not easily spread to people, and so far there are no human cases in Europe. In East Asia, the epicenter of the outbreak, more than 60 people have died of bird flu, including a man in Thailand whose death was reported Thursday.

The threat to humans would be serious only if the virus develops into a form that can spread from person to person.

In the meantime, European officials alternate between expressions of calm and apprehension. Typical mixed signals were sent out Thursday.

In Switzerland, Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin, who is in charge of health issues, criticized "hysteria" surrounding bird flu and said it was virtually impossible for people to catch it. In Luxembourg, the European Union issued a statement warning of "global threats" and appealed for an "international coordinated response."

France has stockpiled 15 million doses of the antiviral medication Tamiflu for use in the event of an outbreak. Gilles Brucker, director general of the National Institute for Public Health Surveillance, said 100 million face masks are in storage and another 100 million have been ordered for delivery by the end of the year.

French health authorities hospitalized two people suspected of contracting the disease, but then released them after tests showed no infection. The most recent case was a man who had recently returned from Turkey, where he had come into contact with poultry. He developed a high fever and severe cough five days after returning to France, Brucker said.

Italy has 150,000 doses of Tamiflu on hand and has ordered 6 million more, said Health Minister Francesco Storace. He said the doses would not arrive immediately and also noted a medical debate over whether Tamiflu would be effective.

Italy assured consumers that poultry was not infected and that the disease could not spread if the meat was cooked well. The government ordered all poultry sold in the country to be labeled at its point of origin to let consumers decide whether they want to buy imports.

The government has also been debating whether to ban hunting on the grounds that a downed duck or goose could bring the virus to earth. Hunters objected -- it's the shooting season in Italy -- so Storace decided to ban only the use of live birds as lures.

In London, the European Union's health commissioner, Markos Kyprianou, said it would be wise to have enough antiviral medicine to cover a quarter of the 450 million people in the union. Belgium's Health Ministry suggested that the E.U. buy antivirals and not depend on individual governments to purchase them.

Frontline countries, meanwhile, are trying to contain the spread of the virus by themselves. Bulgaria banned imports of live birds and poultry products from Turkey and Romania, and Hungary is disinfecting all trucks that cross into its territory from Romania.

Consumers appear to be taking their own precautions. Chicken sales in Italy have plummeted because buyers fear that handling the birds might cause infection, retailers say. "Sales of chicken have dropped a ton, I would say 50 percent," said Pino Russini, 37, head butcher at the Campo dei Fiori Carni open-air meat and poultry stand in Rome.

On Thursday, the stand carried a big sign on the counter saying "We Know Our Chickens." The National Aviculture Union said chicken sales were off 40 percent.

In France, the Federation of Commerce and Distribution, which services major supermarkets, said sales of poultry products had dropped 20 percent since last weekend, according to the newspaper Le Monde.

"It's not that it's big -- it's enormous," said Frederic Simonneau, 31, a second-generation butcher in the Marais district of Paris. "This week I've sold half of what I sold two weeks ago. Everyone out there who deals in poultry is crying."

But not all Parisians are giving up poulet . Sandrine Besnard, who runs a sandwich shop near the Paris Opera, said she's seen no change in customer demand. Open for lunch Thursday, she turned to her next customer in line: "Now what will it be today?"

"Chicken," said the smartly dressed woman. "On whole wheat, not white."

Moore reported from Paris. Researcher Gretchen Hoff in Paris contributed to this report.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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