France and the Netherlands have begun to vaccinate poultry.
Anxiety in Europe Over Avian Flu
Por Julio Godoy
In France, people are excluding chicken from their diet, and they even fear the pigeons on their balconies. Meanwhile, in Germany there are calls to cancel the soccer World Cup scheduled to take place there beginning in June.
The multiplication of cases of wild birds infected with the avian flu virus in at least seven European Union countries is causing anxiety across the continent, with a dramatic decline in poultry consumption and numerous reports of dead birds.
In France, sales of poultry products have dropped more than 30 percent since Feb. 13, when the first case of a wild duck infected with the H5N1 virus was reported in Joyeux, some 500 km southeast of Paris.
"The decline in consumption became evident the weekend of Feb. 18-19," Jérôme Bédier, head of the French federation of supermarkets, told Tierramérica. "The products most affected are the full chickens, but the lower consumption also affects dishes prepared with farmed poultry ingredients," he added.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has tried to calm nerves, clarifying that the available scientific evidence shows that poultry appropriately cooked is not dangerous because heat deactivates the H5N1.
Eggs, which might hold the virus in the shell or inside, should not be eaten uncooked if they come from areas where the diseases has been reported.
The danger of contracting the illness lies in handling infected poultry -- dead or alive. Most of the human cases occurred as a result of direct contact with infected birds, especially during slaughter.
"Since Feb. 17, our services have received more than 3,000 calls per day, from people who are reporting dead birds or who are upset because pigeons are landing on their balconies," said French Health Minister Xavier Bertrand. "Normally, we received around 30 alerts per day."
Bertrand stressed that France -- which has joined Austria, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy and Slovenia in having found infected birds -- has implemented an efficient precautionary system and that the risk of the transmission of the disease to humans is minimal.
Since the epidemic began in Vietnam in 2003, the WHO has identified 170 human cases of bird flu, with 92 deaths.
The WHO's real fear is that the virus will mutate to a new form that could make human-to-human contagion of the virus possible.
The EU authorized France and the Netherlands on Feb. 22 to vaccinate farmed birds against the virus in specific regions and under strict conditions.
But widespread vaccination of poultry is considered risky because although the vaccine inhibits the development of the disease in the immunized birds, it also makes it difficult to distinguish between health and sick birds. Because of this, the EU had prohibited vaccination until last week.
"Vaccinated animals that were infected remain healthy, but they carry the virus and could easily transmit it," Thomas Mettenleiter, director of the Friedrich Loeffler Institute for virus and veterinary research in Germany, told Tierramérica.
"The virus confronted by antibodies will react and mutate. That is why massive vaccination of farmed birds would be a mistake," he said.
France set up observation centers in specific regions around the country where poultry farming is most concentrated, and stepped up controls at international airports to prevent the entry of birds from non-European countries affected by bird flu.
Towards the end of last year, France suspended imports of birds and bird products, like feathers, from non-European countries where the disease has been reported.
Other European countries have adopted similar measures, particularly the seven nations where the virus has been verified. Germany is currently the European country with most wild birds reported with infection of the H5N1 virus.
On the island of Rügen, in the Baltic Sea, the German authorities identified more than 100 infected dead wild birds, such as swans, geese, ducks and even an eagle. Other birds were found on the mainland, along the Baltic seaboard. The entire area was declared a disaster zone.
In total, the officials recovered more than 2,000 bird carcasses. The H5N1 virus was found in six percent of them.
As a precaution, the German government ordered the slaughter of more than 3,000 birds. Hundreds of soldiers, wearing protective biohazard suits, continue patrolling the coast, looking for wild bird carcasses.
The discovery of infected birds on Rügen rekindled the discussion in Germany about the threat of a flu pandemic in humans. According to figures from the Robert Koch Institute for pulmonary illnesses, such a pandemic could claim as many as 160,000 lives in Germany alone.
The panic has reached a point where German political personalities have suggested calling off the World Cup for soccer, set to take place in that country in June and July.
The director of the WHO's bird flu program, Klaus Store, has supported that idea. "If a pandemic should explode between now and summer, (the German government) should have the courage to suspend the championship."
* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent.