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Fear of Bird Flu Builds in Europe

Demand for Tamiflu rises after the virus is confirmed in Turkey and Romania. Officials caution against panic.

October 15, 2005|Charles Piller | Times Staff Writer

Poultry sales plummeted and sales of Tamiflu soared Friday as the specter of bird flu came knocking on Europe's door.

"Panic! Dead Birds at Home, Too!" read a banner headline in 24 Chasa, a Bulgarian daily newspaper, even though the virus has been found only in Turkey and Romania.

Several nations have experienced a run on Tamiflu, the chief drug found to be effective against the deadly form of bird flu, called H5N1.

"Fifteen customers a day ask me for Tamiflu. It never stops," said Ludwig Ronsyn, a drugstore owner in Brussels. Supplies in Belgium have sold out, according to the drug's manufacturer.

In Hungary, some butchers said poultry sales plummeted this week.

With the confirmation Thursday of bird flu in Turkey, Western Europe has begun to brace for the virus' likely arrival.

Government officials spoke out Friday to quell the building anxiety and dispel the fear that Europe faces a crisis.

"We are not in a situation of pandemic," French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said. "We must not give in to panic."

Health experts emphasized that the virus passes from birds to humans with great difficulty and that the risk of human-to-human transmission is lower still.

"Tens of millions of birds have been affected. But there have been only about 117 human cases in two years," World Health Organization spokesman Dick Thompson said. "This is a very difficult disease to move from animals to humans."

But the experts' message seemed muffled amid the increasing efforts by government agencies across Europe to limit the spread of the virus. The European Union banned imports of live poultry and packaged meat from Turkey and Romania, where ducks in the Danube River delta, a key wetlands along a major flyway between Russia and Central Europe, were found infected with a strain of the H5 virus.

Greece, Hungary and Germany have tightened customs controls at airports, seaports and borders to crackdown on illegal bird imports.

Researchers believe the virus is carried over long distances by migratory waterfowl. The birds first carried it north from its epicenter in Asia to Siberia, where it was detected this year, then south to Turkey and Romania on their fall migration to northern Africa.

Most bird species stop off for rest on their transcontinental journeys and, in the process, exchange viruses with other bird species.

One key stopover area along the migration route, on the northern edge of the Caspian Sea, brings together many species that travel to Southern and Central Europe, increasing the likelihood that migratory birds will move the virus in unpredictable ways, said Ward Hagemeijer, an ornithologist with Wetlands International, a research group based in the Netherlands.

East Africa, where some Siberian birds spend the winter, may become the next bird flu hotspot, experts say.

"That's where we'd expect it to come up next if the birds can carry it," Hagemeijer said. "It's just a matter of time, really."

In the spring, the birds in Africa return north, through Europe. But even if the wildfowl were to infect European birds then, the odds are small that it would spread rapidly.

In Southeast Asia, bird flu has been fostered in millions of subsistence farms where chickens, ducks and wild birds mingle with other animals and people.

In developed nations, stringent biosecurity controls to prevent standard poultry diseases from spreading between farms would inhibit the spread of bird flu, said Carol Cardona, a poultry veterinarian at UC Davis.

Without a vaccine available for humans, the first line of defense against bird flu has been Tamiflu, but supplies have been stretched thin, in large part because of the drug's complicated manufacturing process.

Tamiflu's Swiss manufacturer, Roche Pharmaceuticals, faces increasing pressure to boost production or license other companies to make it. Cipla, an India-based drug maker, said Friday that it would market an inexpensive generic version of Tamiflu by early next year -- without permission from Roche.

But the drug's reliability was thrown into question Friday with the release online of a report from the journal Nature documenting the emergence of a resistant strain of the virus in a 14-year-old Vietnamese girl. She apparently caught the flu in February while caring for her sick brother, even though she was already taking the drug.

The girl recovered fully, but the episode shows that mutations in the virus are occurring at a rapid rate. Such mutations, experts say, could increase the ability of the virus to infect humans, leading to a pandemic.

No traces of the virus have appeared in North America.

Tom Rothe, waterfowl coordinator for state of Alaska, said tracking studies using radio transmitters implanted in migratory birds have found that several species routinely travel between Asia and Alaska. Some migrate as far as California and Texas.

"A few of them have made it over from the middle of Siberia," he said.

Times wire services and special correspondent Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris contributed to this report.

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