Greece was on Monday carrying out further tests on a turkey detected with bird flu on an Aegean island to establish if it was infected with the deadly strain of the virus already found in Turkey and Romania.
If confirmed as the H5N1 strain which has killed more than 60 people in Asia, it would be the first case of a bird with the virus in the European Union.
The turkey came from a small private poultry farm of about 20 turkeys on the tiny eastern Aegean island of Inousses off Chios, the Greek Ministry of Agriculture said.
“The Center for Veterinary Institutes has informed us that one of nine poultry samples has tested positive to bird flu (H5) antibodies,” it said in a statement, adding that it was running further tests to "to verify the correctness of the analysis."
Bird flu comes in several forms but H5 itself is not necessarily considered deadly and has been detected in various parts of the world.
The European Union’s executive said on Monday it was preparing to impose a ban on the movement of live poultry and poultry products from the island of Chios.
The initial test result came as Europe attempted to balance moves to test for outbreaks of deadly bird flu with the need to reassure EU citizens amid growing concern about a disease with the potential to mutate and cause a pandemic among humans.
No human cases have been reported in Europe, but the World Health Organization said it was concerned European countries might divert funding and attention away from Southeast Asia which was the most likely ground zero for any pandemic.
Greece’s neighbor Turkey, only a few miles off Chios, has also detected cases of deadly bird flu as well as Romania, both of which have culled thousands of birds in the past few days.
Greek government officials said there was no need to cull any of the other birds but jittery neighbors and European countries on migratory routes stepped up testing of birds.
Romania recorded no new cases of bird flu after a mass cull of poultry on Monday in the Danube delta but was testing 12 swans found dead last week.
“The swans are suspect of having died of bird flu and further tests would be carried locally to see whether they are infected with the virus,” Marian Avram of the delta’s veterinary watchdog told Reuters.
No nation prepared, says U.S.
U.S. Health Secretary Mike Leavitt, speaking in Asia, warned that no nation was properly prepared for a bird flu pandemic and said the disease could spread.
“If one thinks of the world as though it were a vast forest, if there is a spark in the forest and you are there to see it, you are able to simply snuff it out,” Leavitt said, adding:
“However, if it’s allowed to burn for an hour or two hours, it often becomes uncontainable.”
The feared mutation of the virus into a form that is easily transmitted between humans is most likely in Southeast Asia, where millions of birds were culled to try to halt the disease’s spread, said Peter Cordingley, spokesman for the WHO in Manila.
The H5N1 strain first emerged in Hong Kong in 1997, when it caused the death or destruction of 1.5 million birds. Eighteen people fell ill, of whom six died.
It re-emerged in 2003 in South Korea and has spread to China, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, Turkey and Romania. H5N1 has infected 117 people in four countries and killed 60, according to the WHO.
While the European Union appealed to countries to test dead birds, the EU center for communicable diseases tried to play down the threat to the public.
“The risk to human health, to public health, is minimal,” Zsuzanna Jakab, the director of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control told a news conference. “It is conceivable, but minimal.”
'Ground zero is Southeast Asia'
Despite Romania’s assurances that no new cases had been found, neighboring Bulgaria was preparing a national crisis headquarters after stepping up border controls and surveillance of poultry farms and wetlands near its Danube River boundary.
Bulgaria, which also borders Turkey where H5N1 was confirmed among domestic fowl last week, has tested scores of dead birds.
In another main migratory route, Croatia had started testing dead birds found by citizens.
“There’s a lot of anxiety (in Europe),” the WHO’s Cordingley said. “The result of this could be that governments might focus on domestic preparedness and forget the fact that ground zero is Southeast Asia.”
The fight against bird flu in Asia is being hampered by huge differences in wealth between countries, health experts say.
Some countries still have no stockpiles of the expensive anti-viral drugs that could help limit a human pandemic and have poor public health infrastructure.
Swiss drugs company Roche said on Monday it was donating packs of its anti-influenza drug Tamiflu to Turkey and Romania and was stepping up production of the drug. Roche has already said it is giving three million packs to the WHO.
The United States has pledged $25 million to Southeast Asia to help fight the disease.