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Europe says bird flu a 'serious concern'

/ Source: The Associated Press

European Union experts said Thursday there was “serious concern” that an outbreak of bird flu in Russia could spread to Europe, and the EU head office urged the 25 member states to step up surveillance.

The EU’s executive commission promised additional funding to track any possible spread of the disease and called a special meeting in a few weeks to coordinate surveillance efforts.

“We clearly want to do our utmost to prevent the spread of this devastating epidemic to the EU. We will continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure that the most appropriate risk-reducing measures are in place,” said Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou.

“The key to this problem is early detection and rapid action,” said EU spokesman Philip Tod.

In France, President Jacques Chirac said he would spare no expense to protect the country against bird flu.

“No obstacle, notably economic or financial, will get in the way of useful measures to protect the health of the French people,” Chirac said. Experts there said the risks were low at the moment.

The EU experts said in a statement that the outbreaks in five regions of Siberia and one district in the Ural Mountains, the range that marks the frontier between European and Asian Russia, “is cause for serious concern.”

However, they argued against stepping up immediate measures.

They called requests for farmers across the EU to bring chickens indoors, as the Netherlands has already done, premature. An outbreak in the Netherlands in 1999-2000 led to the destruction of 30 million chickens at an estimated economic cost of more than $180 million, according to EU figures.

The EU experts “considered a general ban on keeping poultry outdoors to be a disproportionate measure at this time,” the statement said.

The European Union already has banned imports of Russian poultry.

Risk from migratory birds 'remote or low'
Migratory wild birds have been blamed for spreading the H5N1 flu strain in Russia, and officials there have warned the birds could carry the virus to Europe and North America next spring. The EU experts said, however, that the risk of migratory birds bring avian influenza into the EU was “probably remote or low.”

Other influenza experts have said it is inevitable that the virus will arrive in Europe, but that it is likely to be quickly detected and stamped out.

Russia’s chief public health official voiced cautious optimism Thursday that the bird flu that has killed domestic fowl in parts of Siberia has stabilized, and said steps were needed to prevent the virus from affecting the poultry industry.

In Russia, the outbreak has killed about 11,000 birds and prompted officials to slaughter 127,000 others to halt the virus’ spread. No human cases have been registered.

Bird flu viruses pose no immediate threat to humans, but the fear is that they could mutate into a form that is both deadly to humans and easily spread between people. Most flu pandemics originate from bird flu viruses. While the virus currently ravaging poultry in Asia has killed people there, it has not spread among them.