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European Fears Rise as Deadly Bird Flu Strain Spreads to Continent

Following the discovery of a turkey believed to be infected with bird flu on a Greek island, concern that the disease will soon be on everyone's doorstep continues to spread among European citizens. EU Foreign Ministers held emergency talks on the issue in Luxembourg and sought to reassure an increasingly anxious public.

Tests are being carried out at an EU-approved laboratory in Greece to confirm whether a sample taken from a turkey on a small island in the Aegean sea is infected with bird flu. If confirmed, it would be the first appearance of the deadly strain of H5N1 in an EU member country.

As a preventive measure, Greece immediately banned the export of live birds and poultry products from Aegean Sea islands. Following the confirmation of bird flu cases in Turkey and Romania, now tests are also being carried out in Bulgaria and Croatia.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, chairing the EU meeting, said its main purpose was to reassure citizens that every precaution was being taken to prevent the avian influenza outbreak from mutating into a pandemic that could kill humans.

"A huge amount of effort is going in to provide advice, assistance to Greece, to Romania, to Turkey, to the Russian federation and to other countries around the world," he said. "A great deal of effort to ensure that there are adequate contingency plans to deal with any transfer of avian flu to humans."

The ministers say bird flu is a global threat requiring international action. They say Western Europe is ill prepared to deal with an influenza emergency.

European citizens are becoming extremely nervous. But the EU health commissioner, Markos Kyprianou, said there is no reason to panic.

"The fact that we have avian flu in Europe now does not affect the possibility of the human influenza pandemic," he said. "We are advised, and WHO has advised, that there is the possibility of such a pandemic. It could come from this virus; it could come from the mutation of any other influenza virus. We are preparing for this event, we have been preparing, we continue to prepare."

Authorities in affected countries are trying to contain the virus, cordoning off affected areas, spraying disinfectants, and slaughtering birds. Experts assure that for the moment the problem only involves animals.

But demand for anti-viral drugs is increasing with more than a half of EU states having placed orders for them. The knowledge that viruses can mutate quickly also makes it difficult to stockpile vaccines.

"We must work on the production and distribution of the vaccine," said Italy's health minister. "That is the most difficult aspect".

Pharmaceutical companies have said they will quadruple their productions. Swiss producer Roche said it would be willing to discuss giving a production license for Tamiflu, one of the main anti-viral drugs, to rival firms.