France braces for bird flu, hit to poultry farms
PARIS, Feb 19, 2006 (AFP) - French authorities vowed on Sunday to spare no effort in combatting a spread of deadly bird flu, after the country became the sixth in the European Union to be hit by the virus.
Europe’s top poultry producer and the world’s fourth-largest exporter, France confirmed on Saturday that the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain of bird flu, which can be lethal for humans, had been identified in a wild duck found dead in the central-eastern Ain department.
Health Minister Xavier Bertrand said that France was taking all necessary steps to prevent the virus from spreading, while stressing it was an isolated case and that no poultry or humans had been affected.
“There will be no financial or economic obstacle in preparing France in the face of these risks,” he said on Europe 1 radio, as the country’s main farmers’ union called for more state help in tackling the threat.
In line with EU-approved containment measures, authorities have cordoned off a zone within three kilometres of the spot where the bird was found, near the town of Joyeux, and stepped up veterinary checks on wildlife.
As western Europe’s main crossroad for migratory birds, France had already ordered all poultry and tame birds to be kept indoors to prevent contamination from wild fowl.
The public has been told not to handle dead birds, and to avoid feeding ducks or pigeons, although Bertrand insisted that French poultry remained safe to eat.
“In our country, you can obviously eat chicken with your eyes closed,” said the minister. “No case of bird flu has been found on a poultry farm. It is important to say so, and to keep on recalling the fact.”
The French poultry industry has already been badly knocked by bird flu fears, with overall sales down 15 percent, and 30 percent in the case of export and free-range sales.
France’s largest farmers’ union, the FNSEA, called on Agriculture Minister Dominique Bussereau on Sunday to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the impact on the poultry sector.
“I call on the state to do everything to help — including financially — poultry producers to take the (necessary) sanitary measures,” FNSEA head Michel Lemetayer told AFP.
The government has so far pledged EUR 6 million to help soften the economic blow for farmers — a sum Lemetayer dismissed as a drop in the ocean.
Meanwhile, the French Agriculture Confederation called for farm controls to be further stepped up.
“We are on a war footing,” the federation’s Christian Marinov told AFP. “We are calling on all poultry farmers to keep an even closer watch on their farms, and to alert veterinary authorities if they have any suspicions.”
Six EU member states have now confirmed the presence of the H5N1 strain of bird flu, which is spreading fast across the continent after showing up in Turkey and central Europe.
The other EU members so far to have detected the virus are Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy and Slovenia.
Elsewhere in Europe, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, Russia and Ukraine have also confirmed its presence.
The H5N1 strain of bird flu has killed more than 90 people, mostly in Southeast Asia and China, since 2003, but health officials fear that if it mutates into a form transmissible between humans it could strike millions.
France has ordered hundreds of millions of protective face masks and anti-viral drugs as a precautionary measure — but Bertrand stressed that talk of a human pandemic was premature.
“The bird flu we are speaking about today on French territory concerns birds, and a single wild bird at that,” he said. “A pandemic would be for the virus to pass from human to human. That has been seen nowhere on the planet.”
Bussereau on Saturday praised the authorities for quickly detecting and sealing off the infected bird, and Bertrand repeated that coordination between veterinary and other authorities was key.
On Friday, Bertrand and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin are to take part in a full-scale emergency exercise near the central-eastern city of Lyon, to test the response to a large-scale outbreak.
Meanwhile, tests were continuing on around 15 birds — mostly swans, as well as two ducks, a heron and a dove — found dead in various parts of the country to establish if they were carrying the virus, French food authorities told AFP.
Subject: French news