Bird Flu Alarm

2006-02-16-Swan Deaths Spread Fear Of Bird Flu In Europe

Understanding Avian Influenza

2006-02-16-Swan Deaths Spread Fear Of Bird Flu In Europe

Migrating swans have spread a lethal strain of avian flu into several European countries in recent days, and experts predicted it was probably only a matter of time before the virus was carried across the continent by migrating birds.

Germany confirmed Wednesday that two dead swans found on the island of Rugen in the Baltic Sea tested positive for the H5N1 strain of bird flu. The virus, which originated in Asia, has been transmitted from birds to at least 165 humans worldwide, killing 91, according to the World Health Organization.

In the past week, dead swans that tested positive for the virus have also been reported in Austria, Italy, Greece, Slovenia and Bulgaria.

The virus has previously been detected in Romania, Croatia and Ukraine. And health officials in Poland, Denmark and Hungary announced Wednesday that they were checking dead swans to learn whether the infection has spread to their countries.

"The virus is here," said Lutz Guertler, a microbiology professor at the University of Greifswald in northern Germany. "We still don't know how this virus is dissipated or what the infection rate will be, but it is here, without question."

So far, the virus has been confined in Europe to wild birds, although there are fears it could infect flocks of chickens or other poultry. That could put humans at higher risk, because most people who have contracted the virus have become infected through close contact with live chickens. Health officials say properly cooked poultry is safe.

Several European countries, including Germany, Sweden and Switzerland, announced new measures ordering poultry farmers to confine their birds indoors in an attempt to prevent contamination.

Meantime, European Union epidemiologists and health officials meeting in Brussels said they would spend more than $2.2 million this year to test hundreds of thousands of wild and domestic birds throughout the 25-member union.

Experts worry that if the virus mutates and it becomes easily transferable among humans, a global epidemic could result. Although no one in Europe has been reported infected by the H5N1 strain -- the closest cases have occurred in Turkey, all from contact with dead chickens -- there were signs that people were becoming jittery.

In Macedonia, President Branko Crvenkovski was confined indoors for three hours by security agents after a dead eagle fell from the sky and landed in his garden, according to media reports Wednesday in Skopje, the capital. Tests later showed the raptor had not died of the flu.

In Italy, sales of poultry plummeted as shoppers refused to take any chances. At Vittorio Latella's Select Meats shop in Rome, a single forlorn chicken and a pan of breasts remained in the poultry fridge, while the meat section was full of hamburger, T-bone steaks and veal chops.

"You are the first person in two days to buy chicken," Latella told a customer. "I don't know if I will replace these pieces when they go bad."

Health Minister Francesco Storace has repeatedly sought to reassure Italians that chickens are safe. Nonetheless, since the weekend, Italian poultry sales plummeted 60 percent, according to the national poultry union.

"This is all because of a flu that doesn't exist on our farms," said Aldo Muraro, the union's president. Muraro estimated that 30,000 poultry workers out of a total of 180,000 have been laid off since bird flu arrived to the edge of Europe last fall. Since Italian authorities discovered eight dead wild swans in Sicily and other southern provinces last weekend, the government has kept a close watch on the poultry industry for signs of an outbreak.

Police in Sicily and Calabria confiscated 80,000 chickens at two poultry farms Tuesday because the owners had failed to put up a proper fence to keep wild birds away.

Owners of pet birds are also alarmed, according to a statement from the Animal Protection Agency, a private group, which said it was being flooded with calls asking how best to kill the birds.

Household pets are unlikely to contract the disease because they do not come in contact with migratory birds that carry it, the agency said.

In Germany, grocers said they had yet to see a steep drop-off in poultry sales but were trying to educate customers about the relative risks.

At Rogacki, a large gourmet shop in Berlin, shoppers crowded the store but mostly avoided the poultry section, despite a stack of fliers explaining that chicken and eggs were as safe to eat as ever.

"Some people seem hesitant to buy, but with our true customers -- the long-term ones -- I have not seen any change in the amount of poultry they are buying," said Bernd Dominick, 60, an employee at the poultry counter. "We have a handout to inform our customers that there is no need for panic."

Understanding Avian Influenza