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Avian Influenza Enters Central Europe
H5N1 detected in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Greece, Germany
Alexander Krabbe (AlexKrabbe)     Print Article 
Published 2006-02-16 15:01 (KST)   
Effective Feb. 15, it is obligatory for every poultry farmer in the German federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania to confine laying hens to their cages. Four dead swans were found on Germany's largest island, Rügen, before the law introduced by Minister for Agricultural Affairs Till Backhaus (SPD) was passed by the state's parliament.

The federal government of Germany earlier enacted a law that prohibits free-range poultry farming that comes into force this Friday.

Two of the swans found tested positive for the highly pathogenic influenza subtype H5N1, which can be transmitted from poultry to humans. This has been seen across Asia and recently even in the European part of Turkey. A restricted zone of three to 10 kilometers radius was established, centered on the habitats of the dead birds.

More than a hundred additional dead swans have been detected all over Rügen since Backhaus appealed to the citizens of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania to report all findings of dead poultry to the responsible authorities. Until now it was not clear how many of those reported have actually been infected by the bird flu virus. Every year hundred of swans die, owing to exhaustion after migrating from their winter retreat in southern countries. All dead swans will be examined in the coming days.

H5N1 has also been identified in dead swans in Hungary, Italy, Greece, and, according to the latest reports, in Austria's Steiermark. Meanwhile, Denmark, Sweden, and Switzerland have also ordered their farmers to keep all poultry in cages.

No Infections of Humans Confirmed Yet

In Greece two elderly citizens were hospitalized after showing symptoms of influenza. Both had had direct skin contact with dead hens. No further suspect cases have been reported.

From the experience with H5N1 in Asia and Turkey scientists estimate the probability of survival of humans infected with the virus at 50 percent. Therapy using so-called "neuraminidase inhibitors," which slow down the multiplication of viruses in general, has only been shown to accelerate recovery but not to avoid deaths, as clinical observation of H5N1-infected persons has revealed.

Humans still are only vulnerable to the virus if there has been a previous intensive contact with infected poultry, as the German center for infectious diseases (Robert Koch-Institute) states in its press release.

According to the institute, a reappraisal of the virus's pathogenic character will be necessary only if it become transmissible between humans. Thus a pandemic is not necessarily imminent.

A vaccine effective against a mutated version of H5N1, however, will have to be developed as needed in response to an outbreak. In the meantime, research laboratories like the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, in the U.S., are investigating the arbitrary crossing of H5N1 with common human pathogen influenza types in order to develop effective vaccines. There has not yet been a report of a successful crossing.

Given the fact that one virus-infected cell in animals or humans produces about 100,000 further viruses, of which 10 percent show signs of mutation, nobody can rule out the possibility of a more aggressive virus forming sooner or later. In addition, a dramatic human-to-human transmission could occur if large gene sequences were to be added to H5N1, for example, in a genetic exchange with human influenza virus H2N3.

The Robert Koch Institute as well as the World Health Organization consequently assesses the risk of a pandemic to be "significantly higher than during the last decades."

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©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Alexander Krabbe

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