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EU: Means Sought To Tighten Defenses Against Bird Flu

(file photo) (epa) The European Union today began procedures to ban the import of live exotic birds. Agriculture ministers meeting in Luxembourg announced they will seek approval from the bloc’s member states for taking action. The bird-flu virus is mainly spread by migrating birds, but the death in Great Britain of a parrot, which was found to be infected by the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, has raised the possibility that the import of exotic birds may also be spreading the virus. The European Commission also announced that it was banning the import of birds and bird meat from Croatia after the presence of avian flu in the country was confirmed by EU inspectors.

Prague, 25 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Great Britain is pressing hard for the European Union to impose a ban on the import of millions of wild birds following the death of a parrot while in quarantine in the United Kingdom. The bird was imported from Surinam in South America, where there is no history of bird flu. But while in quarantine, the parrot came into contact with birds from Taiwan, where the virus is increasingly widespread.

EU spokesman, Philip Tod, speaking today, said Brussels would now seek approval from all EU governments to impose a ban.

"We are proposing to ban all commercial imports of wild birds. So, all the wild birds which are imported for sale in the European Union -- all wild birds which are imported for sale in the European Union, we are proposing to ban those imports. That is the proposal that is being tabled in the standing committee [comprising EU member-state veterinary experts] this afternoon," Tod said.

The extent of the trade in wild birds is not fully known as so much of it is conducted illegally, but Julian Hughes, head of species conservation at Britain's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said it is large-scale.

"There are some estimates of the scale of the trade, which is between 2 and 5 million birds. There's about 10,000 different species, different kinds of birds, in the world and about 2,500 of them have been found in the trade, so about a quarter of all the world's birds [species] are taken from the wild somewhere in the world, stuck into a crate, shipped on a plane and moved to another part of the world as part of the pet trade," Hughes said.

The case of the dead parrot in Britain showed that migration was not the sole way in which the virus was spreading.

"The key word in terms of spreading avian flu has to be bio-security -- that means making sure that all the possible routes for transmission are either closed down or reduced," Hughes continued. "And there are four main routes: One is the migration of wild birds and that migration is at its peak right now and will be coming to an end over the course of the next month. Equally, it is very important that we don't take our eye off the other balls such as the movement of poultry and also the bird trade."

With that in mind, the EU also announced today that it is banning the import of poultry, wild feathered game meat, and unprocessed feathers from Croatia. This followed the deaths there of another 13 swans from the H5N1 strain of bird flu.

All cause for anxiety but not for panic -- according to senior European health officials meeting in Copenhagen. Europe, they said, was in an excellent position to prevent the virus getting a foothold in the human population. The level of cooperation and coordination among EU member states, combined with the EU's wealth and technical expertise, left it well placed to deal with bird flu so long as it took adequate precautions.