Bird Flu Alarm

2006-01-17-Germany Prepares for Potential Bird Flu Outbreak

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-01-17-Germany Prepares for Potential Bird Flu Outbreak

The alleged bird flu cases in Belgium and Cologne turned out to be false alarms. But what would happen if a suspected case of bird flu was confirmed in Central Europe? DW-WORLD has been finding out.

Nobody can and wants to say whether the virus could hit central Europe. On Jan. 14, the worst fears seemed confirmed, ironically right in the bureaucratic heart of Europe. A journalist returning from Turkey to Brussels complained about flu-like symptoms, which eventually turned out to be a false alarm.

A day later, another person, this time in Germany, was suspected to be infected with the bird flu virus. But this too turned out to be unfounded. The cause for the flu symptoms after a visit to bird flu-affected Turkey was not the deadly H5N1 strain, but rather bronchitis. The concerned hospital in Cologne confirmed that the affected man simply had a "bad cold."

Much ado about nothing?

Virologist Werner Lange, the former director of the influenza department of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Berlin, said that concerns are warranted. He added that the hoopla surrounding the virus is a positive sign.

"The fact that the doctors examined the patient so swiftly for the H5N1 virus makes me optimistic," Lange said, adding that it showed that authorities were alert and that the action plan against the epidemic in Central Europe was working.

Swift action crucial

So far, there is no danger from those infected to others -- current up-to-date information shows that there can be no human to human transmission of the virus.

"The most decisive thing is that there is an initial suspicion that is acted upon," Lange said. In other words, it's important that the doctor thinks so far as to check a patient, who has just returned from Turkey, for bird flu.

After that, on a clinical and administrative level, everything then works according to the national influenza pandemic plan developed by the Robert Koch Institute in accordance with international regulations issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Even if there is the slightest suspicion of bird flu, the patient, for safety reasons, will be isolated in an intensive care unit of the hospital that can be quarantined.

Experts say that finally there's no ruling out that the virus can't "learn" how to mutate into one that's transmitted between humans. Laboratory tests can determine which virus has infected the patient. At the same time there will be efforts to warn people who have come into contact with the patient, to also check themselves for the virus.

Lange stressed that even this procedure had "worked brilliantly" in suspected cases so far. "In the case of the Belgian man for instance, authorities already had a list of passengers who were with the affected person on the same flight." Lange added that "if the virus was detected early, the chances of healing are good."

The case then, according to the epidemic law, has to be registered. The national pandemic commission would then coordinate measures -- in Germany that would mean between WHO, the federal government, the states, emergency management and other authorities. Here, according to the level of danger, authorities would orient themselves towards so-called "pandemic warning periods," of which there are six. Currently, Germany is on level three.

"High" likelihood of outbreak

The Friedrich-Loffler Institute (FLI) complements the Robert Koch Institute on veterinary medicine. In an exhaustive study on the risk of bird flu from Jan. 11, 2006, the scientists concluded that the likelihood was "high" of bird flu being transported to central Europe from the affected regions in Turkey or Romania through illegal imports.

The German Ministry for Agriculture and Consumer Protection, however said in a statement that Germany and the EU were still "well prepared" when it came to targeted monitoring of migratory birds, which could be carriers of the virus, and stepped-up controls at airports, ports or highways.

And if German poultry stocks still do get infected with the virus despite all the measures, FLI spokesman Elke Reinking said the EU was well-equipped. The EU catalogue of measures on containing poultry epidemics "had been refined over the years," thus increasing chances of containing a possible outbreak.

"I sleep very well when it comes to this," Reinking said. "And we're doing everything so that it remains that way."

Understanding Avian Influenza