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Last Updated: Monday, 10 April 2006, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
Germany's fight against bird flu
By Ray Furlong
BBC News, Berlin

The alarm caused by the discovery of a dead swan with bird flu in Britain echoes what happened in Germany when its first case of the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus was detected two months ago.

Poultry farm in Wermsdorf
Fears resurfaced when the first case emerged in domesticated poultry

The Baltic Sea island of Ruegen was overwhelmed by media teams, troops were brought in to help clear up dead swans, and cars crossing the bridge to the mainland were sprayed with disinfectant.

Since then, the virus has been identified in 274 wild birds including swans, hawks, and geese, at sites the length and breadth of the country.

At one stage, a Green Party MP suggested that Germany would have to cancel the World Cup if there was a human pandemic, although she was widely criticised for being hysterical.

In each case, EU security measures have been put in place - a 3km (1.8-mile) exclusion zone, with no fowl allowed in or out, followed by a 10km (6-mile) "observation zone" where flocks are closely monitored for infection.

Public concern

The media frenzy died out soon after the first few finds, although there was a brief spurt of renewed attention when a dead cat was found, also on Ruegen, with the virus.

Health pundits immediately warned cat-owners not to cuddle their pets too much and to keep them locked out of the bedroom.

Newspapers warned that the infection of a cat showed the virus was "moving closer to humans".

But officials from the World Health Organization calmed the situation, arguing that feline infection had no implications for the possibility of humans getting infected.

Since the first case was found, consumption of poultry and poultry products has fallen by around 30%

Two subsequent cases of cats with bird flu, both on Ruegen, caused less alarm.

Fears resurfaced last Wednesday, however, when dead turkeys at a farm in Saxony were found to have died of H5N1 - the first time domesticated poultry has been affected.

Some 16,000 fowl at the farm, also including chickens and geese, were culled, as were another 14,000 at other farms within the 3km exclusion zone.

Once again, the level of media attention rose sharply.

German officials told television channels that most of the birds were gassed, while a device was brought in from another region to kill the others by electrocution.

Public concern about bird flu seems to be genuinely quite high.

Since the first case was found, consumption of poultry and poultry products has fallen by around 30%.

The farmers' union has also voiced concerns about other countries imposing bans on German produce.

Vaccination issues

Two other issues have also concentrated minds in Germany - the level of stocks of anti-bird flu treatment Tamiflu and whether to vaccinate flocks of poultry.

Dead swan on Ruegen island
Germany's first cases of bird flu were detected on Ruegen island

There has been some criticism that the country has not stockpiled enough Tamiflu to be able to deal with a pandemic if it breaks out, but the government insists it has done enough.

"Tamiflu can only delay or limit the spread of the virus," said Health Minister Ulla Schmidt recently.

"But not everyone who has it needs Tamiflu. Therefore experts advise having enough Tamiflu for 20% of the population.

"This is what we are preparing."

The government takes a similarly cautious view on vaccinating poultry stocks, arguing that it would be expensive and ineffective.

In Germany, bird flu has once again slipped out of the headlines since last week. But it is sure to be back soon.


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