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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 February 2006, 17:23 GMT
France on bird flu war footing
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

Duck in the protected area in Ain in France
France had been preparing for the arrival of bird flu

"We are on a war footing now," admits Christian Marinov of the French Poultry Farming Confederation, after France became the latest country in Europe to be hit by H5N1, the virulent strain of bird flu.

One dead wild duck - its body found by a lake in the rural east of the country, in the Ain region outside Lyon - was officially announced on Saturday night as the first confirmed case of the strain in France.

The virus has spread westwards and on to Britain's nearest continental neighbour thanks to migrating birds.

France had long said it was inevitable that this strain would eventually turn up here, and has been preparing accordingly for months.

We have to do everything we can to convince consumers that there is no risk whatsoever to humans from eating poultry
Christian Marinov
French Poultry Farmers Confederation

This is Western Europe's main migratory crossroads for wild birds, as well as its biggest poultry producer, with farmers breeding and selling some 900 million chickens, ducks and geese a year on 200,000 poultry farms.

It was a combination that made it vital for the French government to act fast.

Even before this case had been confirmed, the French Agriculture Minister, Dominique Bussereau, ordered all domestic poultry to be either kept indoors or vaccinated.

Safe?

On Saturday, he toured a chicken farm in the Ain region to reassure farmers that everything possible would be done to protect them and their flocks, while the French Health Minister Xavier Bertrand did his best to reassure consumers that poultry remained safe to eat.

Mr Bertrand said the government was taking all the necessary steps to prevent the virus from spreading, and he stressed that the dead wild duck was an isolated case - with neither poultry nor humans infected in France.

In line with EU anti-bird flu measures, the French authorities cordoned off a two mile zone around the site where the bird was found, while vets observed wild fowl in the area to see if other birds were showing any signs of sickness.

We know wildlife plays a role in spreading the virus, and there is little we can do to change the habits of wildlife
Alex Thiermann
World Organisation for Animal Health

Another 15 wild birds found dead in various parts of the country are still being tested.

The French public has been warned not to handle dead birds, and to avoid feeding ducks or pigeons, with the French government setting up a telephone helpline and a website to offer more information to anyone with concerns over bird flu.

"No panic - yet..." was the headline in France's main Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche.

Nonetheless, poultry farmers in France are extremely worried.

Many had already complained that publicity over the possible spread of bird flu last year pushed sales down some 15% by the end of 2005, and they fear that the public could now start to avoid chicken altogether thanks to misplaced health fears.

"We have to do everything we can to convince consumers that there is no risk whatsoever to humans from eating poultry," says Mr Marinov.

Developing world fears

The country's main farmers' union, the FNSEA, has called for more state aid in tackling the threat, even though poultry farmers have already been promised 6m euros to help them prevent any contamination of their birds by wild fowl.

Alex Thiermann, a special adviser at the intergovernmental body the World Organisation for Animal Health, stresses that France has so far taken all the right actions.

"We are seeing reports of a single wild fowl dying of the virus," he says, "and that indicates that the level of awareness in France is very high, in that everything suspicious is being tested. This is the right approach. We know wildlife plays a role in spreading the virus, and there is little we can do to change the habits of wildlife, so we have to make sure every measure is taken to protect domestic poultry from contagion."

Dr Thiermann emphasises that it is quite difficult for domestic poultry to catch bird flu from migrating birds.

"It is only spread by direct contact - for example between water fowl and chickens. They have to come into physical contact, and it cannot be spread simply by migrating birds flying overhead."

His main worry is not Europe, but the developing world.

"The cases in Asia and Africa are much more worrying," he says.

"The willingness to report cases is not there, yet the most serious outbreaks in domestic poultry are occurring in developing countries.

That is where the resources are needed to compensate farmers and encourage them to report cases."

In a radio interview, the French Health Minister, Xavier Betrand, tried to calm the fears felt by many ordinary French people.

"No case of bird flu has been found on a poultry farm," he reassured them. "It is important to say so, and to keep on recalling the fact."


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