Brussels, 26 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- "Better safe than sorry" is the maxim being applied by the Netherlands, which two years ago had to slaughter 30 million birds to end an outbreak of avian influenza, or bird flu. One veterinarian also died.
But so far, the Netherlands remains alone in its decision to confine its estimated 5 million domestic hens, ducks, geese, and turkeys indoors to prevent contact with migratory birds traveling to Europe from Siberia and Central Asia. Most other EU member states consider the risk too low to implement similar measures.
Leading veterinary officials from EU member states met yesterday in Brussels to discuss the issue. Summing up the talks, European Commission spokesman Philip Tod said a Europewide ban on keeping poultry outdoors is not justified at this stage.
“The experts noted the specific preventative measures adopted or implemented in the poultry sector of some member states in response to the outbreak in Russia, but considered that a general ban on keeping poultry outdoors would be a disproportionate measure at this time,” Tod said.
Tod acknowledged that little is known about the role played by migrating fowl in spreading the disease. But he said the experts, while agreeing that the situation in Russia and Central Asia is cause for "serious concern," do not think it's necessary for the EU to act at this time.
“There was an extensive discussion on the possibility of the disease spreading into the EU via migratory birds. Taking into account existing knowledge of the migratory routes of the species of birds that might pose a risk of spreading the virus, the [EU expert] group concluded that the immediate risk is probably remote or low, depending on the area of the EU,” Tod said.
"Taking into account existing knowledge of the migratory routes of the species of birds that might pose a risk of spreading the virus, the [EU expert] group concluded that the immediate risk is probably remote or low, depending on the area of the EU." - Tod
Another EU official, who asked not to be named, said hundreds of species of migratory fowl travel to Europe from Siberia and Central Asia every year. He said most of them choose northern Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands as their shorter- or longer-term resting place.
This probably explains why Germany is reported to be seriously considering following the Dutch example and confining its domestic poultry indoors. Veterinary authorities in Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, and Lithuania have told their farmers they recommend a similar course of action.
However, the EU source said, neither Russia nor Kazakhstan has provided sufficient data to allow EU experts to determine if wildfowl are to blame for their outbreaks.
Another EU official noted that infected wild birds quickly succumb to the disease. He said the question is, can a healthy bird carry the virus long distances?
At this point, most EU authorities appear to think that likelihood is negligible. Hence, they decided yesterday that a ban on poultry imports from Russia and Kazakhstan imposed on 12 August, coupled with increased vigilance and surveillance, should suffice.
“A number of actions were agreed at the meeting, including a review of contingency plans and increased vigilance to ensure that the existing measures – such as the import bans – are fully enforced," Tod said.
EU member states are invited to review and intensify their surveillance measures. In particular, it was suggested that contacts between domestic birds and migrating waterfowl must be minimized.
Member states also agreed to make full use of existing measures designed to monitor the introduction of birds by individuals or businesses to the European Union. Dutch authorities are known to have already started monitoring travelers and their luggage arriving by air from Central Asia and other high-risk areas.
EU sources say another topic briefly broached at yesterday’s meeting was the possibility of the transmission of the influenza virus from birds to mammals. One expert noted that the widespread practice in China and elsewhere of keeping poultry together with pigs could provide the virus with a possibility to mutate. That would also present a greater danger to humans.
EU officials said the possible impact of bird flu on human health was not discussed at yesterday's meeting, however.
The European Commission says it is working with EU member states to plan and prepare response measures to a possible human flu pandemic.
In Southeast Asia, around 50 people have died from bird flu since the current outbreak began. All infected humans are so far thought to have acquired the virus from direct contact with diseased birds.See also:
Russia Grapples With Bird Flu Outbreak
Bird Flu Threatens Globe, But Might Never Spread
Outbreak Of Bird Flu Confirmed In Siberia