Fears that Asian bird flu has spread to Europe as ducks die in Romania


· Black Sea villagers and animals under quarantine
· Britain to conduct tests looking for lethal strain

Nicholas Watt in Brussels, Sarah Boseley and Riazat Butt
Saturday October 8, 2005
The Guardian

Fears that the deadly Asian bird flu may have spread to Europe were heightened yesterday when the Romanian government confirmed that three ducks have died of a strain of the disease in the east of the country. Scientists in Britain are to conduct tests on samples to find out whether the domestic ducks were infected by the dangerous H5N1 strain, which has so far been confined to Asia.

The Romanian government warned that it feared that the ducks were infected with the strain, and strong security measures were put in place in the village of Ceamurlia, in eastern Romania, where the birds died late last month. Restrictions were placed on the movement of people and animals into and out of the village near the Black Sea and there were plans to vaccinate people. Nearly all the domestic fowls in the village have been slaughtered.

Gabriel Pedoi, a senior Romanian health official, told the Associated Press: "We are in the phase of suspicion. We are trying to isolate the virus and we are taking all measures to isolate the disease."

If it is confirmed that the ducks died of the H5N1 strain of bird flu, Europe will be placed on high alert. The strain has killed 60 people in Asia and there are fears that the virus could soon develop into a form that passes more easily to humans. In the worst-case scenario, that could trigger a human flu pandemic.

European Union officials were last night counselling caution after a scare in August, when the virus spread to the Asian part of Russia. Sources said Romania had not yet notified the European commission and they pointed out that a seagull died of a mild version of bird flu in Finland recently.

But the World Health Organisation said it was taking the development seriously, though it would only become fully involved in the outbreak if it was transmitted to humans.

"If it were to spread to other geographical areas then we would be concerned because H5N1 is quite strong and it can persist," said spokeswoman Maria Cheng.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the current assessment of the risk of the strain spreading from Russia to Britain was low, but that any new, confirmed cases in countries that had not experienced them before would trigger a further risk assessment. Asked if the Romania cases could have resulted from migrating birds landing - the most obvious way the disease would spread - a spokesman said: "It is too early to say, if it is indeed confirmed, how the disease has been transmitted."

The dead birds were first noted in Ceamurlia late last month, Romanian officials told AP. Samples were sent to a laboratory in Bucharest, where scientists found antibodies to bird flu. Unable to find out the exact strain of the virus, the scientists sent samples to Britain for testing at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, based in Weybridge, Surrey. The results are expected in the next few days.

The findings in Romania follow warnings from the British Veterinary Association (BVA) that some strain of avian flu is bound to arrive in Britain. The best-case scenario has always been that infected birds would swiftly die from the virus before they could get far. Each step towards the UK will raise concern, however, that this scenario is too optimistic.

Different species of birds are affected differently by the virus, and some will survive longer than others. The BVA pointed out that highly pathogenic strains of avian flu have been spread by wild birds.

If avian flu gets into the domestic poultry flock, the risk of it passing to humans clearly rises sharply. So far, the strain of avian flu that has spread to humans in Asia has not shown an ability to transfer easily from one human being to another. When that happens, experts believe we will have to deal with a pandemic.