Bird Flu Alarm

2006-03-03-In Italy-fear of bird flu shows at checkout

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-03-03-In Italy-fear of bird flu shows at checkout

Three weeks ago, the gleaming meat case in the huge SMA supermarket on Via Tagliamento, in a middle-class neighborhood of northern Rome, was brimming with chicken breasts, wings and drumsticks.

Now, since wild swans and a duck were found dead from the H5N1 virus in distant parts of Italy last month, there are only a few, sad packages of poultry - all discounted by up to 30 percent. Most of space has been usurped by slabs of beef, ham, tongue - anything but chicken, which Italians are refusing to eat.

Sales of poultry at the store are down more than 50 percent, said Peluigi Micarelli, the manager. Micarelli is "pessimistic" about a recovery, despite repeated assurances by top scientists that eating cooked poultry is safe.

As Italians express their bird flu anxiety in terms of food, people in France and Germany are taking it out on their pets. The news this week that a single stray cat died of bird flu on Germany's Rugen Island - a place with an extensive outbreak among wild birds - has turned citizens of these two nations against their cats, with some even contemplating abandonment.

Serge Belais, president of the French Society for the Protection of Animals, said Thursday that he feared that French cats would be abandoned "on a massive scale," with people releasing their pets into streets and fields. He said the society had been deluged by calls from cat owners worried about the cat in Rugen.

In Germany, officials have ordered cats kept indoors and dogs on a leash in areas where wild birds infected with bird flu have been found.

In fact, the risk that a cat could pass the disease to humans is "vanishingly small, if it exists at all," even in countries with widespread bird flu problem, Dick Thompson, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, said Thursday.

From five years of experience with bird flu in Asia, it is known that cats that eat birds with H5N1 can, in rare cases, become infected. None have passed the disease to a human, Thompson said.

"People are trying to get adjusted to a new threat in their backyard and it's reasonable for them to be asking lots of questions," Thompson said.

"But you have to gauge risk and keep this in perspective: 180 million birds have died in of this disease and less than 200 people have ever become infected. The risk of getting it anywhere is very, very, very small."

As government officials in Germany, France and Italy warned against panic Thursday, the frenzy among humans over bird flu began appearing more threatening than the disease.

The Italian government has had to pump money into its ravaged poultry industry as an antidote to irrational fears.

In France, a single outbreak on a poultry farm in the country's east has sent supermarket sales plunging.

Health experts agree that measures like eliminating poultry from the diet - or ditching Fifi - are unwarranted. But they do suggest precautions.

While it is perfectly safe to eat well cooked poultry and eggs, the World Health Organization recommends avoiding soft-boiled eggs or fried eggs with runny centers in places like China or Indonesia, which have widespread bird flu problems and "where infected products might be in the food chain," said Dr. Peter Benembarek, a scientist in food safety with the organization.

Likewise, in areas with outbreaks in poultry, people should not use raw eggs in uncooked toppings or sauces, Benembarek said. Commercial mayonnaise is safe, as it uses pasteurized eggs.

None of these precautions is essential in Europe, where there is a good food safety system and only one bird flu outbreak in poultry so far, he said.

He noted, however, that scientists have long recommended against eating uncooked eggs because they can carry salmonella, a far greater risk that bird flu.

The World Health Organization does not advise people to get rid of pets, or to isolate them. If a cat brings home a dead bird, "the bird should be brought to the attention of local veterinary authorities," Thompson said, especially if it is in an area with known bird flu cases.

Ornithologists caution that many birds die at this time of year, often from lack of food. Still, children should not play with dead birds, which may carry other diseases. Likewise, it may be a good idea to keep pets on a leash in areas with outbreaks to prevent them from coming into contact with infected animals.

There is copious evidence from outbreaks in Asia and from laboratory studies that cats and other mammals (including humans) can get bird flu after intensive exposure to sick and infected birds. But there is no evidence that cats can give it to humans, said Jan Slingenberg, a veterinarian at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization here.

Cats can pass it to one another, but only if they live in extremely close circumstances. In one experiment, cats infected with H5N1 were kept in cages with healthy cats, who eventually contracted the virus. "But these were severe infections and experimental conditions," that are not replicated in human homes or even in nature, Slingenberg said.

"If cat-to-cat transmission became commonplace, there would be big implications," suggesting the virus had changed in a way that would allow it to spread between mammals, Slingenberg said. But he added that "all the evidence now is that this is not the case."

Understanding Avian Influenza