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`Bird Flu Psychosis' Is Catching

The World

Despite efforts of health officials, anxiety is spreading with the virus in Western Europe.

February 18, 2006|Livia Borghese and Jia-Rui Chong | Special to The Times

Western Europe has been preparing for months for the arrival of bird flu, with health officials urging calm in the face of the spreading virus.

Apparently, some people weren't listening very well.

"The feathered death -- it has landed," blared a headline from the Berlin tabloid BZ.

"Bird flu psychosis," was how Italian television channel Rai News 24 described the national mood.

The lethal bird flu, known as H5N1, crossed into Western Europe this week for the first time with the discovery of infected birds in Italy, Greece, Germany and Austria. On Friday, France reported it had a probable case of bird flu in a dead duck.

Since first emerging in Hong Kong in 1997, the virus has spread across Asia; it reached Turkey in October. European health officials prepared emergency plans and began getting the word out that the virus only rarely infected humans.

Despite their reassurances, the reality of the virus' arrival has sent parts of the continent into hyperventilation.

Since the beginning of the week, the Italian Health Ministry reported, it has received more than 13,000 phone calls to a special bird flu hotline to report dead birds or ask for advice.

Health Minister Francesco Storace on Monday toured the southern provinces where infected swans had been found.

"We have to keep calm," he said, the Italian media reported. "The problem is restricted to wild waterfowl. The illness has not affected poultry, and we can continue to eat chicken."

Nevertheless, poultry sales have plunged 70%.

The Italian Farmers Confederation published the results of a national poll showing that eight of 10 consumers said they would not buy chicken, even though thorough cooking destroys the virus.

Umberto Borelli, head of the confederation's animal production department, said the economic damage had been "dramatic."

"We are losing every day 6 million euros, over $7 million," he said.

Italians are saying the virus already has taken its first human victims.

In Gozzano, a village in the Veneto region where 50% of all the country's farms are concentrated, Claudio Rubello, a 49-year-old trucker, killed his wife and child and slit his own throat Sunday after losing his job delivering chickens.

"He was very worried because we told him there'd be less work because of the crisis," a trucking company official told the newspaper La Repubblica.

The virus has infected 169 people in seven countries, killing 91, according to the World Health Organization. Scientists are worried that more human infections could allow the virus to mutate into a form that would be easily transmissible to people, leading to a pandemic.

No human cases have been reported in Western Europe, said Maria Cheng, a WHO spokeswoman in Geneva.

She said Western Europe has a solid public health infrastructure and probably could respond to outbreaks more quickly than governments in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, where the virus infected humans.

In Germany, officials mobilized to counter the anxiety over the virus.

Authorities reported that two swans and a goshawk died of bird flu on the Baltic island of Ruegen, near the village of Trent. A German lab later confirmed that 10 other wild birds had the disease.

Horst Seehofer, minister for agriculture and consumer protection, addressed parliament Thursday on bird flu. He ordered poultry breeders to immediately take all animals into indoor coops and he banned poultry markets.

Mohamed Hafez, head of the Institute for Poultry Diseases at the Berlin Free University, told the German news agency DPA, "Everybody is afraid now, but there is no reason for panic. We have to keep cool now and react in an appropriate way."

In some parts of Western Europe, reaction to the first confirmed cases of bird flu has not been dramatic.

Austrian authorities ordered restrictions on poultry sales and prohibited bird markets and pheasant hunting only in areas they deemed "high risk."

Ulrich Herzog, bird flu coordinator for the Austrian Ministry of Health, said the Alps are a "natural barrier" for migratory birds, so "it's not very likely that the whole country will be affected by bird flu."

At Naschmarkt, the vast outdoor market in Vienna, butchers have complained that "chickens are staying on the shelf," said Ernestine and Josef Ramseidl, owners of the Gockelhahn, the biggest poultry retailer in the market.

But overall, there has been little decline in Austrian poultry sales. At Billa and Spar, two large supermarket chains, representatives reported small reductions in poultry buying but "nothing dramatic."

The country's biggest chicken restaurant chain, the Wienerwald, has not seen any decline in demand and reported that tourists and area residents locals were still ordering chicken.

"The only one that has flu here is me," grumbled one waiter.

*

Special correspondent Borghese reported from Rome and Times staff writer Chong from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Alissa J. Rubin and Elisabeth Penz in Vienna and Christian Retzlaff in Berlin contributed to this report.

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