Anxiety is rising in Europe as bird flu, and rumours of it, spread across the continent. Dead wild birds from Portugal to Sweden are being tested for the deadly Asian H5N1 flu. A man in Portugal, who was hospitalised with flu symptoms after his chickens died, is being tested too.
But scientists say bird flu in Europe poses only raises the risk of a human pandemic a tiny amount compared to the continued rampage of the virus through Asia. Yet the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has received none of the money rich countries had promised it to help stem the massive infection of Asian poultry.Leading flu expert Ab Osterhaus, of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, told New Scientist: “H5N1 in Europe poses an agricultural problem. But it poses less of a public health risk.”Most of the 121 people known to have caught the virus so far in Asia were living with, killing, plucking or eating infected poultry. Relatively few Europeans do that, so there are likely to be far fewer human infections. “The threat of a pandemic hasn’t increased significantly as a result of recent developments” in Europe, says Angus Nicoll of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control.And because the means to contain outbreaks quickly exist in Europe, fewer poultry are likely to be infected. “Europe is in an excellent position to prevent the virus from getting a foothold,” said Gudjon Magnusson of the World Health Organization, after talks on the situation this week in Copenhagen, Denmark.Multiplying virusControl measures should prevent any flu virus in the environment from being multiplied by thousands of sick poultry. That in turn, says Osterhaus, will keep it from spilling back into the wild bird population. In Asia, uncontrolled infections in poultry generated huge amounts of virus.Osterhaus doubts the virus will even persist in its present state in wild birds in Europe. “Normally these highly pathogenic viruses don’t do that,” he says. In Asia they have persisted, he thinks, only because so much virus was churned out by infected poultry.Magnusson said efforts to stop H5N1 from going pandemic have to focus on southeast Asia, and Osterhaus agrees: “The southeast Asian situation is out of control.”Thailand has reported a resurgence of outbreaks of the virus in poultry in October, and its first human cases since the beginning of 2005. Indonesia has now had seven human cases since its first in July.But China is causing the most concern. The only official reports of outbreaks in poultry since spring 2004, have been one in Anhui in July 2004, and three in remote regions of Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia in 2005, all attributed to wild birds. This week, after a spate of official pronouncements about the need for vigilance over bird flu, China has reported two poultry outbreaks in heavily populated provinces, Anhui again and Hunan. There have been widespread suspicions that the virus continues to spread in Chinese poultry, possibly masked by widespread vaccination.(Source: New Scientist: Debora MacKenzie: October 2005.)