EU on High Alert: Dangerous Bird Flu Found in Romanian Ducks

BRUSSELS, Belgium, October 17, 2005 (ENS) - Laboratory tests detected the H5N1 strain of bird flu in samples from Romanian ducks on Saturday, confirming that the deadly virus has arrived in a mainland European country for the first time.

European officials have been waiting for the lab tests to show whether the virus is the same strain that which has killed 63 people and caused the death of 150 million birds in Asia since 2003. It is.

"The European Commission has been informed that test results from the EU laboratory at Weybridge this afternoon confirmed that the avian influenza virus in Romania is the same high pathogenic H5N1 strain found in Asia and in Turkey,” said EU Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner Markos Kyprianou.

Romania is already an EU candidate member and the EU has just launched membership talks with Turkey.


Romanian ducks tested positive to the H5N1 strain of avian flu, the first time the illness has been found in mainland Europe. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Earlier tests confirmed that the virus in Romania was an H5N1 strain but further tests were required to confirm the link with the strain found in Asia and Turkey. This link has now been confirmed.

“As a precautionary measure following the confirmation of the H5N1 virus in Turkey on 13 October, the Commission had already been working on the assumption that the virus found in Romania was also the H5N1 strain. Therefore appropriate measures are already in force,” said Commissioner Kyprianou.

Officials in Romania have announced plans to slaughter thousands of birds to prevent the disease from spreading and imposed restrictions on the movement of birds within Romania.

A measure blocking the import into the EU of live birds, poultry meat and other poultry products from Romania came into force last Thursday and a Commission decision on reinforced preventive measures was endorsed by member state experts Friday.

EU national veterinary experts on Friday endorsed Commission recommendations that include strengthening biosecurity on farms and introducing early detection systems in high risk areas.

The EU experts, who were in Brussels for a two-day emergency meeting, said measures should be taken to prevent contact between wild birds and domestic species as far as it is practicable to do so.

Reinforced preventive measures proposed by the Commission to reduce the risk of introduction of avian influenza into European Union poultry farms were endorsed by the member states on Friday and will be formally adopted by the Commission in the coming days.

These measures include a requirement for member states to prevent contact between wild birds and poultry in high risk areas such as wetlands or other areas known to be frequented by migratory birds.


Wetlands on Romania's Danube Delta attract migrating waterfowl. (Photo credit unknown)
Europe's largest wetlands are in the Danube delta, which is a resting and feeding ground for migratory wild birds flying in from northern Europe on their way to winter in warmer latitudes.

"People must pay attention to our recommendations and they have to be calm, because we have the situation under control," Romanian Agriculture Minister Gheorghe Flutur told journalists.

Experts fear H5N1 could mutate into a virus which spreads easily among humans, creating a pandemic that might kill tens of millions of people. Romania has not reported any cases of bird flu so far in humans.

Since the import ban on Romania and the reinforced biosecurity measures in the EU are already in place, there is no need today to propose specific further measures in response to the confirmation of the H5N1 virus in Romania.

The Commission has convened the Standing Committee again on Thursday to evaluate the evolution of the situation, and will convene a meeting earlier if required.

Imports of live birds and feathers from Turkey have already been banned by the Commission since Monday, following the finding of the avian influenza virus there.

The Commission recalls that this avian influenza virus is currently an animal health problem affecting birds. The reported cases of the virus infecting humans (in Asia) seem to result from close contact with birds under circumstances which are not commonly found in Europe.

Commissioner Kyprianou will attend the General Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg on Tuesday for the point on avian influenza, and will give a press conference on Wednesday in Brussels on influenza pandemic preparedness.

Commissioner Kyprianou will also attend the Informal Meeting of Health Ministers in Hertfortdshire on October 20-21, which will discuss influenza pandemic preparedness.

The spread of the virus in Asia has been blamed on backyard farms and open-air markets where humans and birds mingle in often unsanitary conditions, and authorities have been unable to wipe it out despite large-scale culling and vaccination.

In Turkey, the state Anatolian news agency reported that nearly 1,000 chickens had died in the east, near the Iranian border, after being transported from the west of the country. Turkish officials also said the incubation period for the avian flu found on a farm in the northwest was over, and the danger to humans had passed.

The World Health Organization warned again that the virus could mutate into a form that could kill thousands or millions of people around the world and urged governments to prepare for such a pandemic.

The agency repeated recommendations that travellers to areas experiencing outbreaks of H5N1 in poultry avoid contact with live animal markets and poultry farms and that people in affected countries avoid contact with dead migratory or wild birds showing signs of disease.

Direct contact with infected poultry, or surfaces and objects contaminated by their droppings, is considered the main route of human infection. Exposure risk is considered highest during slaughter, de-feathering, butchering, and preparation of poultry for cooking. There is no evidence that properly cooked poultry or poultry products can be a source of infection, WHO said.

At the UK's Medical Research Council, Chief Medical Officer Liam Donaldson warned today that a bird flu pandemic could kill 50,000 people in Britain and a death toll of 750,000 was "not impossible," the BBC reported. Donaldson said a deadly outbreak is unlikely to happen this winter.