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EU: Bloc Prepares For Pandemic As Bird Flu Reaches Greece

EU Health Minister Kyprianou (file photo) The European Union said today it is preparing for the spread of avian flu throughout its members states after an apparent case of avian flu has been reported in Greece. Turkey and Romania have already confirmed the presence of the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus on their territory. Bulgaria and Croatia are awaiting results from their own tests for the virus. The issue was discussed at a meeting today of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg. Officials urged member states to step up preparations for a possible flu pandemic among humans.

Brussels, 18 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, representing the current EU Presidency, played down reports that a first case of avian flu had been detected within the borders of the European Union -- on a small Greek island off the Turkish coast.

“So far as folk know, there’s been confirmed reports of avian flu in Turkey and Romania, there’s been one case [of avian flu] suspected but not yet confirmed on an island of Greece close to Turkey – no other cases within the European Union borders themselves,” Straw said.

However, shortly afterward, EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said that influenza antibodies have been detected in samples taken from Greece. He indicated a formal confirmation is soon to come of bird flu's arrival in the EU.

Kyprianou said that further outbreaks in other areas of the EU now cannot be ruled out. He said migratory birds were the most likely cause of the quick spread of the virus.

"All evidence indicates, suggests, that the [bird flu] virus can be spread by wild migratory birds," Kyprianou said. "Until this is proved one way or the other, we will work on the assumption that this is the case, and we will take preventive measures -- member states in specific regions -- based on this assumption."

Many migratory routes of wild birds converge in Southeastern Europe, where the wetlands in the Danube Delta form an important transit point. Fleeing the onset of winter, most birds travel on to North Africa and the Middle East.

Kyprianou said the EU already has measures in place intended to bring to a minimum contacts between domestic poultry and wild birds.

Straw said earlier today that the EU is making a “huge amount of effort” to avoid the transmission of avian influenza to humans. The virus discovered in Turkey and Romania belongs to the extremely virulent H5N1 strain.

That strain has so far killed 60 people, all in Southeast Asia. As yet, it is not thought to be capable of spreading through human-to-human contact. However, this could change if the avian virus mutated or merged with a human flu strain.

The EU ministers today adopted a declaration saying they view avian influenza as a “global threat” which needs an internationally coordinated response. EU health ministers will discuss the issue next week.

Today’s declaration promises EU involvement in addressing the problem “at source” -- that is, in Southeast Asia, where the virus has persisted despite attempts to eradicate it going back a number of years.

EU officials today repeated their earlier insistence that there are no grounds for panic. Health Commissioner Kyprianou said the EU must prepare for a human flu pandemic regardless of the spread of avian influenza.

"We are advised, and the [World Health Organization, or WHO] has advised, that there is a possibility of such a [flu] pandemic," Kyprianou said. "It could come from this virus, [or] it could come from a mutation of any other influenza virus. We are preparing for this event. We have been preparing, and we continue to prepare, regardless of the [bird-flu] outbreaks in Europe."

Every year, outbreaks of ordinary seasonal flu kill thousands of people across Europe. The flu is said to have claimed up to 20,000 lives in Germany in 2004.

Kyprianou said a vaccine against a possible bird flu-based human pandemic could not be developed as long as it has not materialized. But, he said, people more vulnerable to the effects of disease -- the young, the elderly, diabetics, and people with heart conditions -- could reduce the risk of infection by having themselves vaccinated against ordinary flu strains.

Meanwhile, Kyprianou said, EU member states must stock up on antivirals -- drugs used to combat the effects of a virus after infection.

"The antivirals are the first line of defense," Kyprianou said. "Vaccines -- we will work to have them produced and distributed as soon as possible after the detection of a pandemic [flu] virus."

However, Kyprianou said the EU was yet not sufficiently prepared for a human flu pandemic. He said only half of the 25 member states had sufficient stockpiles of antivirals to cover 25 percent of their populations -- the amount recommended by global health authorities.

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