Bird Flu Spreads to Greece, Migratory Birds Suspected

ATHENS, Greece, October 18, 2005 (ENS) - Greece reported its first case of bird flu on Monday, the first incidence of the disease within the borders of the European Union.

The Agriculture Ministry said the H5 virus had been detected in a turkey on the resort island of Chios, in the eastern Aegean Sea. The island is only nine nautical miles from the western coast of Turkey, where an outbreak of bird flu at a turkey farm last week was confirmed as the deadly H5N1 strain. The deadly virus has also been found in wildfowl in Romania's Danube delta.

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Map of Greece and surrounding countries, showing the island of Chios in red (Map courtesy CIA)
It is still unclear whether the Greek bird was infected by the H5N1 strain, which has claimed 63 human lives and the lives of more than 150 million birds in Asia since December 2003. Further tests on the Greek bird to determine whether the strain is H5N1 are still pending. Results are expected in about a week.

If the virus is confirmed to be H5N1, it will be the first time that strain has been detected within the European Union.

"Our operation is in full swing," Agriculture Minister Evangelos Basiakos told reporters. In an attempt to calm a worried public, he said, "We have over 1,000 vets and employees on duty at the moment. There should not be any panic. Our labs are working, the system is working."

Health experts fear that the H5N1 avian flu virus might mix with a human flu virus, creating a new virus that can spread rapidly among humans. They fear a global pandemic during which up to seven million people might die, according to the World Health Organization.

Officials in northeastern Greece are concerned that bird flu may be present there as well. Three dead birds found in Evros have been sent for tests at the Thessaloniki Veterinary Laboratory (TVL) to determine if avian flu is the cause of death, the Macedonian press agency reports.

The Veterinary Department at the Prefecture of Evros in cooperation with the Hunting Association of Alexandroupolis collected 20 more samples of migratory birds to be sent for tests to the TVL, while the results from the tests conducted on the first 40 samples of migratory birds sent five days ago will be out before the end of the week.

European Union foreign ministers are holding emergency talks today on the widening bird flu scare.

The EU is preparing to ban sales of live birds and poultry from the Aegean Sea region of Chios, if the lab tests reveal the H5N1 strain.

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Bird observatory on the Greek island of Chios where an infected turkey has been found. (Photo courtesy Faragi Kampion)
On October 15, the European Commission announced that the European Union World Animal Health Organization laboratory in the UK had confirmed that the bird flu samples from Romania and Turkey were of the type A/H5N1.

The occurrence in both Romania and Turkey in birds in open air sites close to areas favored by migratory birds suggests that bird migration has been the method of spread from the East, said the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The agency said it also indicates the potential for further spread to other parts of Europe.

The infected farms have been isolated and their birds destroyed, but officials fear that wild birds may already be infected and could spread the disease as they migrate.

Reinforced preventive measures proposed by the Commission to reduce the risk of introduction of avian influenza into EU 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.

Each member state will define which areas are at risk and apply the necessary measures to separate wild birds from poultry. This could include keeping poultry indoors in high risk areas.

Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou is attending the General Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg today to discuss avian influenza. He 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 pandemic preparedness.

Bulgaria, an EU candidate country which borders Turkey and Romania, has tested scores of dead birds but Bulgarian officials said they had not yet found any suspected cases of the virus.

The World Health Organization said Thursday that countries located along migratory routes need to be vigilant for signs of disease in wild and domestic birds. "Recent events make it likely that some migratory birds are now implicated in the direct spread of the H5N1 virus in its highly pathogenic form," the world health body warned.