Sunday, January 15, 2006

News - Bird Flu: Need we panic?

The confirmation this week that 16 people have tested positive for the H5N1 strain of Bird Flu, which is deadly to humans, has heightened fears that the virus is spreading west into Europe.

The country often seen as the meeting point of East and West, is now, it seems, the gateway into Europe for this dangerous strain of the avian flu.

The deaths of three children in Turkey have brought home the stark reality for many that Bird Flu isn't just a South East Asian phenomenon, but is on the cusp of entering the European Union.

Up to 1.7 million people from the UK visit Turkey each year. It has steadily grown to be an extremely popular tourist destination with the first direct flights to Turkey from Belfast starting in May.

Scientists have warned that the strain could cause a lethal pandemic if it develops into a form that can be spread from human-to-human, but many stress that the risk remains low.
Bird Flu was thought only to infect birds until the first human cases were seen in Hong Kong in 1997. Since then, according to the World Health Organisation, 77 people have died in countries mostly located in South Asia - until now.

So as the disease moves ever closer, how worried should we be and what can be done to ensure it doesn't become a pandemic?

A Bird Flu pandemic is a global threat, which ignores borders and requires a co-ordinated international response. Only this week the world's third-largest bank, the HSBC announced contingency plans to deal with an outbreak which, it fears, could leave up to half of its staff off work.

Given the trans-national nature of this disease we need member states in the European Union to work together to ensure that Avian Flu does not spread.

Back in October of last year Greece became the first EU country to confirm a case of Bird Flu and since then the European Commission has taken the issue very seriously. European Commission surveillance measures were stepped up significantly last October and in the past four months about 25,000 wild birds have been tested in the EU for the avian flu.

In addition the EU banned imports of live birds and poultry products, including feathers from Turkey and, from this week, imports of untreated bird feathers are also banned from countries bordering Turkey.

But the current patchwork of preparedness in the European Union would mean that an outbreak in an ill-equipped country could quickly spread and would be more likely to mature into a human-to-human strain of the disease.
What is clear is that in the coming weeks and months, the European Union must create its own stockpiles of anti-viral medicines so that outbreaks in less prepared countries can be contained without other member states relinquishing their own stockpiles.

This proposal seems to have been met with some sympathy by EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou who announced that the issue is likely to be on the agenda when EU ministers next meet to discuss the Bird Flu threat.
Recently the European Parliament approved a new directive to prepare for a Bird Flu outbreak. It contains proposals to create logistical restrictions preventing an outbreak from spreading, but also an amendment from the European Parliament aimed at helping the poultry industry in the event of an outbreak. This amendment proposes the destruction of all infected meat, with co-financed compensation for affected farmers.

The European Commission's initial proposals were weak and would have permitted poultry infected with low-pathogen Bird Flu to be sold in British supermarkets.

Belfast Telegraph

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