Swan Deaths Spread Fear Of Bird Flu In Europe

Veterinarians prepare to place a dead swan into a plastic bag on the Baltic island of Rugen, where two infected swans were found earlier.
Veterinarians prepare to place a dead swan into a plastic bag on the Baltic island of Rugen, where two infected swans were found earlier. (By Christian Charisius -- Reuters)

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By Craig Whitlock and Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 16, 2006

BERLIN, Feb. 15 -- Migrating swans have spread a lethal strain of avian flu into several European countries in recent days, and experts predicted it was probably only a matter of time before the virus was carried across the continent by migrating birds.

Germany confirmed Wednesday that two dead swans found on the island of Rugen in the Baltic Sea tested positive for the H5N1 strain of bird flu. The virus, which originated in Asia, has been transmitted from birds to at least 165 humans worldwide, killing 91, according to the World Health Organization.

In the past week, dead swans that tested positive for the virus have also been reported in Austria, Italy, Greece, Slovenia and Bulgaria.

The virus has previously been detected in Romania, Croatia and Ukraine. And health officials in Poland, Denmark and Hungary announced Wednesday that they were checking dead swans to learn whether the infection has spread to their countries.

"The virus is here," said Lutz Guertler, a microbiology professor at the University of Greifswald in northern Germany. "We still don't know how this virus is dissipated or what the infection rate will be, but it is here, without question."

So far, the virus has been confined in Europe to wild birds, although there are fears it could infect flocks of chickens or other poultry. That could put humans at higher risk, because most people who have contracted the virus have become infected through close contact with live chickens. Health officials say properly cooked poultry is safe.

Several European countries, including Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, announced new measures ordering poultry farmers to confine their birds indoors in an attempt to prevent contamination.

Meantime, European Union epidemiologists and health officials meeting in Brussels said they would spend more than $2.2 million this year to test hundreds of thousands of wild and domestic birds throughout the 25-member union.

Experts worry that if the virus mutates and it becomes easily transferable among humans, a global epidemic could result. Although no one in Europe has been reported infected by the H5N1 strain -- the closest cases have occurred in Turkey, all from contact with dead chickens -- there were signs that people were becoming jittery.

In Macedonia, President Branko Crvenkovski was confined indoors for three hours by security agents after a dead eagle fell from the sky and landed in his garden, according to media reports Wednesday in Skopje, the capital. Tests later showed the raptor had not died of the flu.

In Italy, sales of poultry plummeted as shoppers refused to take any chances. At Vittorio Latella's Select Meats shop in Rome, a single forlorn chicken and a pan of breasts remained in the poultry fridge, while the meat section was full of hamburger, T-bone steaks and veal chops.

"You are the first person in two days to buy chicken," Latella told a customer. "I don't know if I will replace these pieces when they go bad."

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