Paris Hosts Bird Flu Conference

February 27, 2006

Paris will host representatives from more than 50 countries for a two-day forum that will seek ways to cope with the increasing spread of the deadly avian flu virus H5N1. As wild birds continue their seasonal migrations, they have come into contact with domestic poultry, spreading the infection across much of Europe.

As the continent’s leading producer of poultry, France is particularly vulnerable. Over the weekend authorities acknowledged that a number of birds at a turkey farm in the Ain region had been infected with the virus. They also announced that 15 wild swans had been found to be infected in the same area. The deadly virus was first found in the region, which is a center of the French poultry industry, two weeks ago.

Over 400 birds had already died from the virus at the affected turkey farm. The rest, around 11,000, were destroyed, and strict measures have been introduced to try and halt the spread of the disease. Some areas have been placed off limits and local police and customs officers are stopping and inspecting vehicles that have been in the region for any sign of the virus. In a recent announcement the French government said it would begin vaccinating more than a million domestic birds along the Atlantic Coast against the disease. China has undertaken a similar program.

The Paris meeting, held under the auspices of the World Organization for Animal Health and the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization, is coordinating the international veterinary response to H5N1. So far the emphasis has mainly been on protecting domestic poultry stocks from infection, but the larger implications H5N1 may pose are also under discussion.

Some authorities have said that it’s only a question of time until the virus mutates into a form that can be transmitted between humans – with catastrophic potential. Others have expressed doubts that this is inevitable, pointing out that the virus has probably been around for at least several years, and has shown no signs of any mutation.

The economic consequences of the infection, however, have already caused concern. Japan and Hong Kong have banned the importation of poultry from affected regions, including France. Consumption of chicken and eggs has dropped dramatically in many countries, causing concern for their livelihood among poultry producers.

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