From The Straits Times Archives

Europe on alert against the spread of bird flu virus

This story was first published on May 4, 2003.

PARIS - The bird flu virus which first hit the Netherlands in February has spread to Belgium, presenting Europeans with the spectre of their own deadly infectious disease.

To date, more than 200 poultry farms in the Netherlands have been contaminated by the H7N7 bug.

In Belgium, at least eight cases have been reported near Antwerp and Limburg, where there is a dense concentration of poultry.

There are additional concerns as the highly contagious virus - which usually only affects birds such as chickens, ducks and turkeys - appears to have jumped the species barrier for the first time.

More than 80 people in the Netherlands and Belgium have developed the mild symptoms of a viral infection - either mild, flu-like illness or conjunctivitis.

One infected person has died, although this seems to be an isolated case and the authorities say the virus does not yet pose a risk to public health.

'No significant genetic changes have been detected in the avian influenza virus strain so far,' European Union (EU) Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne said last month.

A spokesman for the International Animal Health Organisation in Paris reiterated this, saying: 'There is no clear evidence of any risk to consumers.'

Mr Johan Reyniers, a spokesman for the European Commission which is overseeing this latest health crisis in Europe, said the Dutchman who died was a veterinarian who helped destroy infected poultry at a farm.

'He did not protect himself first with the recommended antiviral medicines,' he told The Sunday Times.

'So far, there is no danger of an epidemic like Sars,' he added. To contain the disease, the Dutch and Belgian authorities have set up buffer zones up to 4 km around affected farms as a form of quarantine.

Poultry up to a 1-km radius from infected farms are being destroyed, and the movement of humans and animals within the buffer zones has been restricted to curtail the spread of the disease.

Millions of birds have also been slaughtered. This includes up to 18.5 million in the Netherlands, out of a total of 100 million. A further one million birds are destined for a fiery end.

Belgium is likely to destroy up to two million chickens.

The EU, which has had several experiences in the past containing animal epidemics, such as the 'mad-cow' disease, has issued stringent directives to all those in close contact with poultry.

Agriculture workers in the infected zones have to vaccinate themselves and wear protective gear, such as face masks and protective glasses.

The EU has also banned the sale and export of live poultry, hatching eggs and even chicken manure, which is used as a fertiliser, from the Netherlands and Belgium to block all possible modes of transmission.

But Germany and France, which share borders with the Netherlands and Belgium, are taking no chances.Germany has extended its buffer zone to 10 km from the nearest infected Belgian farm.

In the northern French prefecture of La Meuse, abutting Belgium, wholesale poultry markets have been shut down since Wednesday as a precaution.

But while German Junior Agriculture Minister Alexander Mueller, described the situation as 'extremely precarious', the reactions from Britain, Portugal and Spain have been benign.

Though some consumers are concerned, there is no panic.

Said Parisian Mr Gilles Maire: 'We have had similar diseases that affected sheep, cow, birds in the last few years, and I'm still eating meat.

'But until this blows over, I'm reading the labels on my food and being more careful about where my poultry comes from.'