Specter of H5N1 Rattles Europe

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

What had been feared for several days now has been confirmed: The deadly H5N1 avian influenza strain has reached Europe. Today, tests at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency in Weybridge, United Kingdom, confirmed that an outbreak that killed 1800 turkeys at a farm in Turkey was caused by the feared strain, which, besides decimating the Asian poultry industry, has infected at least 117 people in Asia and killed 60. Meanwhile, samples from dead ducks recently found in Romania have been shown to contain an H5 virus as well; further tests are under way, but chances are "high" that H5N1 is the culprit in that country as well, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) in Paris said today.

H5N1 has been spreading throughout Asia since late 2003 and has recently caused outbreaks in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia (ScienceNOW, 12 August). It's not quite clear how the virus moves, but some researchers believe it may use migratory birds for its long-haul trips.

To avoid spread of the virus, the Netherlands decided in August to keep poultry inside during the current bird-migration season, a measure it hoped would be adopted by the European Union. At the time, most member states rejected the proposal, because they believed there was no hard evidence of migratory birds' role. Today, the European Commission announced that it would call together flu scientists and bird-migration experts on Friday to discuss the risk anew. The E.U. banned the import of live birds, poultry, and feathers from Romania today, as it had done for Turkey on Monday.

In further worrying news, Iranian officials notified OIE yesterday of an outbreak of an unknown disease that has killed more than 3000 ducks in the West Azerbaijan province since 2 October. The cause of the outbreak has not been identified.

Related site
OIE press release

Posted in Environment, Europe