10/14/2005, 00.00
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World ill-prepared to face bird flu pandemic

Bird flu has arrived in Europe. No specific vaccine exists as yet. Measures are under way to isolate the infection.

Brussels (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Bird flu has reached Europe earlier than anticipated and all states fear a pandemic for which no vaccine has been developed as yet. Yesterday the European Union confirmed that the H5N1 virus was present in Turkey. Markos Kyprianou, EU Health and Consumer Protection chief, said the virus found in Turkey was the same strain as that which has spread along the borders of Russia, Mongolia and China. He also confirmed that the virus had been carried by migrating birds. Meanwhile, tests have found that the poultry struck in Romania were also infected by the same viral strain.

The EU has prohibited the importation of live birds and poultry meat from Turkey and Romania. In Romania, the virus appeared in the Danube delta zone, a transit route for migrating birds coming from Russia, Scandinavia, Poland and Germany and heading south towards warmer Africa for the winter. Thousands of birds in both countries have been culled to prevent contagion.

Experts say the question is not "if" the virus will arrive in Europe and America, but "when". "An outbreak is inevitable," said Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, the governor of Hong Kong where the virus appeared in 1997. "It's just a matter of time." The government of the island has spent more than 12 million US dollars to build stockpiles of Tamiflu – medicine for bird flu – however another eight months are needed to have sufficient quantities for 4% of its 23 million residents.

For the time being, human beings can be infected only if they live in close contact with sick birds excreting the virus with feces, which dry out and become powder that is inhaled. The virus cannot be transmitted from human to human (even if there have been two cases, in Thailand and Vietnam, where it is feared that such direct infection occurred between relatives), however what is known for certain is that it could mutate into a form of human to human contagion. It is not possible to develop a vaccine for a virus which does not exist yet, which means a sudden mutation could well infect entire communities within a short time and kill millions of people before a vaccine is found. Another problem is that "at least six months would be needed to build stocks in adequate quantities", according to UN expert, David Nabarro.

The predictions of epidemiologists vary between two million and 360 million deaths, which seems to confirm that the virus is a largely unknown quantity.

Meanwhile the EU is recommending that people take vaccines against standard flu as the only possible prevention. In states closest to already infected areas, alarm has already spread. In Serbia, vaccine stocks and masks with breathing filters have sold out, and in Hungary, all carriages carrying poultry and passing from Romania must be disinfected.

The only possible counteraction would appear to be isolating hotbeds of infection. However, only 40 out of 192 member states of the World Health Organisation (WHO) have prepared plans to tackle an emergency. Only 30 states, specifically more developed ones, have ordered antiretroviral medicines to treat those who are infected. The virus was discovered in Hong Kong in 1997 and crossed Asia within a few years.

It has killed 150 million birds in 11 countries, especially in Asia, and it has caused losses amounting to 15 billion US dollars for the poultry industry, causing severe damage to China and Vietnam which produced 25% of poultry exported in the world. The WHO confirms 116 cases of human infection and 60 deaths in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia since 2003. (PB)

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See also
Asian battleground key to beating bird flu virus
Sumatra: human-to-human transmission of bird flu
Bird flu: Indonesia will give WHO samples only if vaccines are cheap
Bird flu feared more virulent in Eastern Europe than in Asia
Bird flu at the gates of Europe, second death in Turkey


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