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EU: Brussels Reacts To News Of Avian Influenza Spreading In Russia

By Ahto Lobjakas

Alarm over avian influenza was ratcheted up another notch today as Russia announced a case just south of Moscow. The European Commission said an existing import ban on birds and feathers from Russia is likely to be extended. Meanwhile, EU member states have started preparing in earnest for the eventuality of a pandemic, although reports of an outbreak within the EU's borders -- in Greece -- have yet to be confirmed.

Brussels, 19 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The European Commission was quick to react to the news that bird flu appears to be making its way west across Russia.

The Russian Agriculture Ministry has confirmed that a strain of bird flu has been found in poultry in the province of Tula, apparently borne by wild ducks.

"The [European] Commission is aware of media reports of suspected cases of avian influenza in the region of Tula, south of Moscow in Russia," said European Commission spokesman Philip Tod. "The commission is contacting the Russian authorities to establish the facts."

There appears to be real concern in Brussels that another front may be about to open in the spread of bird flu toward the EU. Over the past few days, Romania and Turkey -- both on the southeastern borders of the EU -- have confirmed cases of the most virulent strain of the disease: H5N1. Tod said there is suspicion of bird flu in Macedonia, and Greek authorities reported a possible case on 17 October.

Russia and the EU conduct a brisk trade in farm products. Three of the EU’s member states -- Finland, Estonia, and Latvia -- share long borders with mainland Russia.

A committee of food-chain and animal-health experts from EU member states will meet tomorrow to discuss a possible EU response.

Tod told RFE/RL that the EU is likely to extend a ban on the imports of birds and feathers from Russia. That ban was first imposed in the wake of confirmed reports of avian influenza in Siberia in the summer.

“What the [European] Commission did in August was that we banned the import of pet birds and feathers from the whole of Russia, following the initial reports of outbreak in Siberia," Tod said. "In September, with more information available about the evolution of the situation, the commission regionalized those import restrictions to the areas affected east of the Urals. That is the measure that we will obviously have to reexamine and extend in light of confirmation -- if there is confirmation of avian influenza in the area south of Moscow.”

Meanwhile, Greece has yet to confirm a suspected bird flu case. Observers point out it that took the EU less than 48 hours to conduct the tests that confirmed the presence of the virus in Turkey and Romania.

EU spokesman Tod admitted the samples had not yet reached the EU's research laboratory in England by midday today. But he declined to elaborate on what has caused the delay.

"Concerning Greece, the [European] Commission has not yet received confirmation of a suspected case of avian influenza in the region of [the island of] Chios," Tod said. "Pending that confirmation, other samples from the same herd have been taken and are now being tested."

Meanwhile, the EU is preparing to test its responses to a possible flu pandemic among humans. A small exercise is already under way to examine the lines of communication within the EU.

Before the end of the year, a larger “coordination and cooperation” exercise will be launched with the participation of all member states. Tod said the exercise will be “desk-based” and will only involve relevant officials.

EU health ministers will meet in England tomorrow and on 21 October to discuss strategy.

Next week, a total of 52 European countries will meet in Copenhagen under the aegis of the World Health Organization (WO) to discuss continentwide preparedness for a pandemic.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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