The bird flu boom

20th February 2006, Comments 0 comments

Even before the disease officially arrived in France, poultry farmers had started layoffs. But some others - from mask manufacturers to vaccine providers to amateur bird-watchers – have been stirred into frantic activity by its eminent spread. With additional reporting by Isabelle Wesselingh and Edouard Guihaire.

*sidebar1*Bird flu's arrival in France, confirmed by health officials last weekend, is obviously bad news, especially for the nation's poultry farmers. But it hasn't sent everyone running for cover; in fact, containment of the disease has prompted a flurry of activity in France.

The H5N1 bird flu virus was identified Saturday for the first time in France when tests on a wild duck found dead in the central-eastern Ain department confirmed the presence of the highly pathogenic strain of the virus.

In the absence of a mutated form of the disease that can spread person to person, the French government's immediate concern is to protect poultry sales; France is Europe's largest poultry producer.

Even before Saturday's headlines, poultry sales within France had been drastically declining and poultry farmers were planning significant layoffs.

But while no one is rejoicing in the arrival of the disease within the l'Hexagone, some have stepped up their activity to keep pace with its spread.

The biggest provider of bird flu vaccine, Sanofi-Aventis, is a French company.

Cover your mouth

One industry in France is actually booming thanks to bird flu: the manufacture of throwaway masks.

The demand for throwaway face masks has exploded; the world leader in personal protection equipment, Bacou-Dalloz, says its factory in western France is operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep up with orders.

"With fears last summer of transmission of bird flu to people, the French government placed two orders for respiratory protection masks, one last July for 12 million units and a second in November involving nine million pieces," communications director Christophe Mathy told AFP last week.

This year the company will double the size of its plant in Brittany to increase production to 180 million masks annually by 2008.

"Bacou-Dalloz has signed a contract worth EUR 80 million euros with the (French) state for respiratory masks to be delivered from now until the end of 2008," Mathy said. "Our current capacity of 40 million per year will then have quadrupled to reach 180 million units."

The masks sell for 50 centimes apiece.

*sidebar2*Line up for your shot

The biggest manufacturer of bird flu vaccine, pharmaceutical group Sanofi-Aventis, also happens to be a French company.

Sanofi Pasteur in September 2005 won a contract worth US $100 million (EUR 82 million) to supply a bird flu vaccine to the US Department of Health and Human Services. The company has already nailed a 13-million-dollar deal with the US government the year previous to produce two million doses of the vaccine.

The company is also working on a prototype vaccine for humans to combat H5N1, the virus strain widely thought to be the cause of bird flu. It reported encouraging results from preliminary trials in December.

"Preliminary results of clinical trials ... demonstrated a good immune response in a significant number of volunteers," the company said in a statement.

The vaccine tested in France is a "pre-pandemic" type, or an initial version developed in advance of a possible mutation of the virus into a form that would cause widespread illness in humans.

Sanofi-Aventis has a contract with France's health ministry to produce 1.4 million doses of the prototype vaccine before the end of the year. The company is also to supply up to 28 million vaccination doses if a pandemic is declared.

Bird paparazzi

Ornithologists and biologists across the country are also out in force, especially since Saturday's diagnosis.

For example, in the Mediterranean region of Camargue, a stop on the route of many migratory birds, scientists are watching for the first major waves of birds returning from Africa.

Using radar equipment, the teams of experts in southern France are charged with alerting authorities as soon as large numbers of wild geese, swans, teals and storks start flying up from the south.

"We are like military sentinels watching for any movement," said Jean-Claude Ricci, director of a Mediterranean hunting and wildlife institute (IMPCF), responsible for the radar project.

The project was actually started before the outbreak of bird flu in Europe and Africa but is expected to last three years and has now focused its activity to serve as a lookout post for the virus.

With migration season about to open full-force, biologists all along the west coast of France have also been called out to perform similar surveys and to help in large-scale vaccination projects.

The grassroots response

Lastly, amateur bird-watchers are also on high alert across the country.

Residents and farmers in Joyeux, the hamlet where France's first case of deadly bird flu was found, immediately began scouring the area's patchwork of lakes and ponds for dead birds and bringing tame fowl safely under cover.

In Saint-Eloi, a neighbouring village that is also ringed with lakes, another farmer, who gave only his first name Christian, tried to coax a reluctant flock of ducks out of a pond.

"It's to bring them under cover," he explained, waving his arms at the birds, who simply flapped off to the far side of the pond. "This morning, I managed to get my geese inside, but this is going to be trickier," he said, his dog barking loudly at his side.

Another driver told the gendarmes he had spent the day driving around local water spots, checking for dead birds, and was heading off to scout some more places.

As more cases are detected in other regions of France — most probably starting in the departments along the Atlantic which are also principal migratory rest-stops — emergency services can expect to be swamped with calls.

February 2006

Copyright AFP + Expatica

Subject: French news, Living in France

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