2006-02-09-INTERVIEW-EU states must not underestimate bird flu riskUnderstanding Avian Influenza
2006-02-09-INTERVIEW-EU states must not underestimate bird flu risk
LELYSTAD, Netherlands, Feb 9 (Reuters) - European Union countries must not underestimate the threat of avian influenza and should take every precaution to prevent an outbreak in poultry, a Dutch expert on the subject said.
Guus Koch, senior avian flu scientist at the Dutch Central Institute for Animal Disease Control, told Reuters he expected many EU countries to order their poultry indoors from March to prevent contact with migrating birds returning ck from Africa.
The deadly H5N1 avian flu strain arrived in Nigeria this week in what is Africa's first bird flu outbreak. Wild birds have been blamed for spreading the disease westwards from east Asia into eastern Europe and Turkey.
"There might still be some member states which are not convinced about the risk," Koch said. " Let say that there is an outbreak tomorrow in a free range farm -- how can a minister of agriculture defend himself when he didn't do everything possible to prevent the outbreak."
"We have to do everything possible to try to reduce the risk," Koch said, "The lesson to others from the Dutch experience is to be prepared."
The Netherlands, which still has bitter memories from a devastating 2003 bird flu outbreak caused by a different strain, was the first EU country to order its poultry indoors last September, when the disease was found in eastern Europe.
The EU then accused the Netherlands, one of the world's top poultry exporters, of exaggerating the risk. Later when the disease spread further in eastern Europe, several EU countries, including France and Germany, followed the Dutch example.
Germany and the Netherlands, Europe's second biggest poultry producer after France, have already announced plans to reintroduce the measure from March.
The Netherlands' biggest concern is that a new outbreak would force it to cull millions of chickens again, said Koch who was sent to Romania last autumn by the EU to help identify the bird flu outbreak there.
"The scenario will probably be the same as in 2003 when we culled 30 million birds, because we have no other means to stop it," he said. "And that's the fear in the Netherlands. That's the reason why we try to reduce the risk as much as possible."
He said preventive vaccination of free range chickens, where the risk of contact with wild birds is seen as the highest, might be a solution in the long term.
The Dutch agriculture ministry has said it was working on a plan to launch mass poultry vaccination but needed to consider various consequences first such as possible trade restrictions, including from EU member states.