Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Bird flu concern in Europe

With images of the Katrina debacle still vivid, many are looking at the threat of an influenza pandemic with fresh eyes. As with a major hurricane hitting New Orleans, the consequences of a pandemic have been envisioned, gamed and supposedly planned for. But after Katrina, no one I know has any confidence in the perfunctory statements of the US government that it is prepared.

Europe is taking the matter far more seriously after bird flu (influenza /H5N1) appeared on its very doorstep, infecting poultry in Siberia and Kazakhstan. The main concern is that wild aquatic waterfowl will carry the virus to the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said that
. . . birds flying from Siberia could carry the disease to the Caspian and Black Sea regions, which along with the Balkans, would form the "gateway to central Europe for the virus".

It said bird migration routes also ran across Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Georgia, Ukraine and some Mediterranean countries, where outbreaks were possible.

The FAO urged countries at risk, particularly along migration routes, to step up surveillance of domestic poultry and wild birds, and to prepare national emergency plans.

"FAO is concerned that poor countries in southeast Europe, where wild birds mingle with others from northern Europe, may lack the capacity to detect and deal with outbreaks of bird flu," FAO's chief veterinary officer Joseph Domenech said. (Reuters).
The Europeans, at least, are listening. The Dutch had a grievous outbreak of an avian flu virus (subtype H7N7) in 2003, losing 30 million birds and suffering hundreds of human infections and one death. Cost: almost $200 million (150 million Euros). They are putting their birds inside, to minimize contact with wild migratory birds. So far other European countries have not followed suit, but most have beefed up their surveillance and other defenses and put their public health and medical systems into action. The British are distributing detailed technical information to their doctors and the French are stocking up on antiviral drugs, notably oseltamivir (Tamiflu), and intensifying airport checks. The human and economic costs of the "mad cow" episode in mind, they are calling for more effort internationally:
"Would our citizens forgive us, after the mad cow crisis, if we did not learn the lessons from that painful experience and if we could not show we were capable of mounting an effective response?" said French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy.
Ignoring clear warnings and not responding would be unforgiveable. I guess we can agree on that.