EU debates wisdom of bird flu vaccinations

21st February 2006, Comments 0 comments

BRUSSELS, Feb 21, 2006 (AFP) - France and the Netherlands, desperate to maintain consumer confidence in poultry meat, sought European Commission approval on Tuesday to urgently vaccinate their flocks against bird flu.

BRUSSELS, Feb 21, 2006 (AFP) - France and the Netherlands, desperate to maintain consumer confidence in poultry meat, sought European Commission approval on Tuesday to urgently vaccinate their flocks against bird flu.

Amid scepticism that vaccinations can keep at bay the potentially lethal H5N1 bird flu strain, present now in at least six EU states, France wants to inoculate geese and ducks, while the Netherlands has drawn up a broader plan.

European health and veterinary experts pored over the projects on Tuesday and the European Commission, the EU's executive body, could decide to endorse them later in the day, a health affairs spokesman said.

The EU's executive body is "not against the plans outright", said the spokesman, Philip Tod, but he warned that they must meet strict criteria.

So far bird flu outbreaks in the European Union have been restricted to wild migratory birds and poultry has been spared, although this is not the case in nearby states such as Romania, Russia and Turkey.

And while more than 90 people have died from bird flu in China, south-east Asia, Iraq and eastern Turkey since 2003 after contracting the H5N1 virus from infected poultry, no human infections have been reported in Europe.

But poultry sales in France have plunged by around 15 percent as cases of H5N1 are found in western Europe on an almost daily basis and fears grow that it could enter the food chain.

Sales in Italy have plummeted by around 70 percent, while those in Greece have dropped by at least 40 percent in Greece, and Portugal by 10 percent.

The Union, the world's third biggest exporter after the United States and Brazil, is keen to restore consumer confidence in poultry meat but experts believe vaccinations may present more disadvantages than benefits.

The issue is divisive because vaccinations could protect poultry from the disease but leave them carriers of the virus without showing symptoms. They could also make it easier for bird flu to mutate and endanger people.

"There are disadvantages if vaccination is not done in a controlled way," Tod said on Friday. "Animals that are inadequately vaccinated may contract the virus anyway and continue to spread it."

"There may also be commercial implications for countries outside the European Union. They cannot easily distinguish whether meat comes from a vaccinated animal or one that could have been infected," he said.

Vaccination also requires special surveillance and controls to prevent any disease from persisting.

In initial European moves to protect the industry, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg and Sweden have all ordered poultry and other tame birds to be kept indoors to avoid contamination.

France went further last week by submitting its plan to vaccinate some 900,000 geese and ducks in three districts.

The Netherlands — devastated in 2003 by an outbreak of H7N7 bird flu that forced the slaughter of a quarter of its agricultural fowl — followed suit on Monday and asked permission to inoculate up to five million commercial poultry.

EU sources say Austria, Denmark and Germany oppose the French and Dutch plans, and Portuguese Agriculture Minister Jaime Silva, speaking at a meeting of EU farm ministers on Monday, also spoke out against them.

"There is no consensus regarding vaccination, even among scientists," the Lusa news agency quoted him as saying. He added that "it is necessary that all the EU countries take the same measures."

With the poultry industry under threat, EU officials have doubled their efforts to reassure to the public.

"There is no reason for European citizens not to consume poultry meat and poultry products," EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou said on Monday.

"We have to keep in mind that we are talking about an animal disease. It's not a human disease," he said. "It's a virus that is difficult to transmit to humans."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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