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Bird flu reappears in Europe as Hungary finds virus

Bird flu infected poultry in Hungary, marking the re-emergence of the virus in Europe since the disease was last reported in August.

The country's central veterinary agency confirmed the presence of the H5 virus in geese, the strain being „N1 type,” the country's Agriculture Ministry said in an e-mailed statement. Hungary will today send the necessary samples to a European Union lab in the UK to confirm the results, it said. Countries in Asia and Africa including Vietnam and Egypt reported fresh outbreaks of H5N1 starting in November, after going months without finding infections. The last reported infection in Europe was a wild bird found in Germany in August, according to the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health. „It is crucial that countries themselves step up their surveillance, detection and rapid response measures,” Juan Lubroth, senior officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization's animal health service, in a statement yesterday. The Rome-based FAO is a United Nations agency. The European Union is the world's biggest consumer of chicken meat after the US and China, at 7.4 million metric tons last year. The 27-nation bloc is the world's third-biggest poultry producer. Authorities have culled 3,300 geese in eastern Hungary after about 40 animals showed bird flu-like symptoms. A surveillance zone was set up and the affected farm is isolated enough that the spread of the disease is unlikely, Chief Veterinarian Miklós Suth said on public television yesterday.

„In the current epidemic situation, maintaining the existing measures is sufficient,” the ministry said in its statement. „Stricter measures, or the culling of further animals, wouldn't be justified.” The WHO is tracking the spread of the virus in case it evolves to become more easily transmitted among people, causing a pandemic. Most of the more than 269 people known to have contracted the virus handled infected poultry or came in contact with their excrement. Properly cooking meat and eggs kills the virus, according to the Geneva-based WHO. The animal health organization has received reports of sick fowl from more than 50 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe, spread through migration and trade. Twenty-six European nations reported initial infections of the H5N1 strain in poultry or wild birds in late 2005 and early 2006 after a severe winter in Russia and the Caucasus area pushed migratory birds south and westward.

EU members have reported 178 outbreaks in domestic poultry since 2005, according to the animal health agency. Romania has had the most poultry outbreaks in the EU at 168. EU members Hungary, Denmark, France and Germany also have reported infections in domestic birds. Greece and Italy are among EU countries that have found the disease in wild birds. Chicken exports from the EU bloc plunged 22% in the first four months of 2006, after the virus was found in the EU for the first time in February, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Croatia yesterday indefinitely banned imports of poultry from neighboring Hungary, including live animals and processed products, the country's agriculture ministry said on its Web site. The measure will remain in place at least until the EU's central laboratory releases its findings. In France, Europe's largest poultry producer, lower demand for the meat caused prices to fall as much as 24% last year. Prices fell as much as 30% in Belgium, 37% in Portugal and 64% in Italy on consumers' concerns about eating infected meat.

The disease in birds creates more opportunity for human infection and increases the risk of the virus changing into a pandemic form. H5N1 has infected people in 10 countries and killed 79 people worldwide last year, more than the fatalities of the previous three years combined, according to the WHO. The EU hasn't reported any human cases. Europeans who don't raise poultry in their backyards have a „low” risk of being infected with the H5N1 strain, researchers at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said in a November report. The risk to human health from poultry in industrialized farms is considerably lower because of better biosecurity and as a result of the successful EU policy of ensuring poultry are kept apart from wild birds on larger farms, the report said. A pandemic can start when a novel influenza A-type virus, to which almost no one has natural immunity, emerges and begins spreading. Epidemiologists believe that a pandemic in 1918, which may have killed as many as 50 million people, began when an avian flu virus jumped to people from birds. There isn't any evidence so far that H5N1 is evolving to become more easily transmissible to humans, the WHO has said. The most recent pandemic in 1968, known as Hong Kong flu, killed 1 million people. (Bloomberg)