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Europeans gird to check spread of bird flu
By Marc Champion, James Hookway (The Wall Street Journal)
Updated: 2005-10-11 14:19

With avian influenza reaching Turkey and perhaps Romania, some European governments are closing their borders to poultry imports from these countries and checking their vaccine stocks to prepare for the possible spread of a long-feared flu virus in Europe.

European Union health officials said it probably wouldn't be known until tomorrow whether the virulent H5N1 strain of the avian-flu virus has reached Europe from Asia. The scare appeared to be galvanizing European governments, if at differing speeds.

Yesterday, Switzerland banned poultry imports from Turkey and Romania. The EU's commissioner for health and consumer protection, Markos Kyprianou, recommended an EU-wide ban on imports of live birds and untreated feathers from Turkey, although most commercial poultry imports from Turkey were banned because of other diseases. Poland today will decide what vaccine and how much of it to stockpile against a possible epidemic.

A team of top U.S. health officials arrived yesterday in Southeast Asia to find ways to better contain and monitor the spread of the virus.

Since the current outbreak of avian flu began in December 2003, the World Health Organization has verified 117 human cases, 60 of them fatal. All have been confined to four countries in Asia: Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. This year, the disease has begun to spread to flocks farther west.

Romania and Turkey reported suspected cases of avian flu last week -- the first time the disease would have touched Europe.

Scientists warn that the H5N1 virus that appeared in Southeast Asia in 2003 could mutate into a virus that can be transmitted among humans and cause a pandemic.

In Turkey, samples from a farm near a nature reserve on the Aegean Sea have tested positive for the virus, but it won't be known until tomorrow whether the birds had the deadly H5N1 strain. Mr. Kyprianou didn't recommend a ban for Romania because initial tests for the virus on three ducks from a small poultry farm in the Danube Delta proved negative. Antibodies to the virus were detected, and the Romanian government said it would conduct a second set of tests, which should be complete tomorrow.

While the European Commission, the EU's executive branch, has some powers to make policy on public health and farming, EU countries appear to be largely determining their own responses.

Europe began to sound the alarm on avian flu when it was discovered in birds in Russia and Kazakhstan a year ago. Italy set up a national emergency center for animal diseases. France and Britain each have stockpiled about 14 million doses of the Tamiflu vaccine to protect their populations should the virus mutate to transfer easily between humans. Spain has vaccinated 4.9 million people considered to be more at risk from any epidemic.

The European Commission has called on Europe's bird watchers to report unusual deaths in wild birds. The suspected cases in Turkey and Romania were in areas where migratory birds stop each year on their way south from Siberia.

As concern about the spread of avian flu grows, the U.S. team was pressing Asian countries to allow unhindered access to influenza samples taken from both poultry and human populations.

"We need transparency that will lead to the sharing of samples, which will allow us to continually monitor whether we need to change the original ingredient of the virus in our vaccine," said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who accompanied Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt to Bangkok.

A group of researchers added to those concerns last week when they said they had shown that the 1918 Spanish-flu epidemic blamed for 50 million deaths had originated in birds before mutating and spreading to humans.

That discovery is providing added impetus for the search for a bird-flu vaccine. In August, the National Institutes of Health reported that the first human trials of an avian-flu vaccine made by Paris-based Sanofi-Aventis SA showed it to be effective. But there are still many hurdles to mass-producing an effective vaccine, including sudden changes in the makeup of the virus.

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