A strain of bird flu that can kill humans has spread from Asia to Turkey and probably Romania, the European Commission said today, warning member countries to prepare against a possible outbreak. Turkey's health minister moved quickly to assuage fears, saying the Turkish outbreak had been contained.
"We have received now confirmation that the virus found in Turkey is an avian flu H5N1 virus," said EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou, news services reported. "There is a direct relationship with viruses found in Russia, Mongolia and China." Experts are afraid that that strain of bird flu could mutate into a virus that could spread easily among humans.
Turkey detected bird flu last Saturday after 2,000 birds died on a poultry farm near the Aegean Sea. The birds were discovered dead in a village in western Turkey, which has been under a two-mile quarantine ever since. Only authorities are allowed to enter and exit the remote village.
Romania also reported bird flu last week in its Danube delta region, which attracts migratory birds from Russia, Scandinavia, Poland and Germany.
Kyprianou, speaking at a news conference in Brussels, said he assumed the bird flu found in Romania was also the same strain as the one found in Turkey, although further tests were needed to confirm it.
A statement by the commission posted on its Web site said the European body was moving today to ban imports of live birds, poultry, meat and other poultry products from Romania. Imports of live birds and feathers from Turkey have been banned since Monday.
An emergency meeting of experts on avian flu will be held Friday in Brussels, the commission announced. The purpose of the meeting is to evaluate the risk that migratory birds pose for European countries.
Kyprianou said authorities were assessing precautionary measures to warn people traveling to countries where the disease has been diagnosed to avoid "going to farms, coming in contact with wild birds and so on."
He said the commission was proposing to set aside $1.2 billion to help make and distribute antivirals and vaccines "in case of a pandemic."
Turkish Health Minister Recep Akdag urged the country to stay calm, saying the Turkish outbreak had been contained.
"Bird flu is totally under control," Akdag said. "The outbreak in winged animals occurred in one area and has been contained."
Strains of the bird flu virus have been spreading in wild and domestic birds across Southeast Asia and China since 1996. Now it has spread to the fringes of Europe.
Since late 2003, more than 140 million domesticated birds -- mostly chickens and ducks -- either have died of the virus or have been intentionally killed to keep the viruses from spreading.
But what has experts worried is that 60 people of the 112 people who have been infected with the virus have died. That fatality rate of 55 percent outstrips any human flu epidemic on record, including the epochal Spanish flu of 1918 and 1919 that killed at least 50 million people.
Avian flu is transmitted to humans only if they eat or live in close contact with affected birds. But scientists warn the strain is mutating toward a form that could pass easily from human to human.
President Bush said recently that he would consider using the military to effect a quarantine in the event of an outbreak of pandemic bird flu in the United States.
The government is stockpiling antiviral medications and an experimental bird flu vaccine as a defense against the virus, should it develop the capacity to spread easily and quickly in human beings.
Staff writer David Brown contributed to this report.