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EU Health Official Urges Europe to Better Prepare for Bird Flu Pandemic

The head of a newly formed EU agency for disease prevention has urged European governments to improve their defenses against infectious illnesses, amid worries of a possible bird flu pandemic on the continent. During the agency's first policy meeting in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, European health officials discussed how to prevent the spread of the bird flu virus and other diseases among humans.

The two day gathering in Budapest of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) comes amid pressure on Hungary to strengthen health measures after cases of bird flu were discovered in neighboring Romania and Croatia.

Although ECDC officials say that so far the risk to human health has been restricted to people working with poultry, the agency's director, Zsuzsanna Jakab, warns of complacency.

Ms. Jakab told VOA her agency wants to discuss with European health officials how to prevent a pandemic. "We have already visited six European countries to evaluate their pandemic preparedness plans and we continue with that until we have covered all the 25 (EU) countries," she said. "And then we would like to go outside the European Union to meet the neighboring countries and to make sure that they have a plan in place, because that's where my worries lie. And also to go to the other regions like Asia, [where] I realized they need a lot of support, partly in capacity building and partly also in anti virus [arrangements]."

Hungarian Health Minister Jeno Racz told VOA in a pandemic situation new strains of bird flu could emerge against which there are no medicines. But speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Racz said by developing a vaccine against the deadly flu virus H5N1, Hungary could play a major role in saving many lives.

"In case of a pandemic, a new vaccine has to be worked out, because that is going to be an absolutely new virus. The vaccine that we have at present is protective against the virus H5N1. And this method is of great significance in case of a pandemic because the testing and the accreditation of the method has required several months," he said.

Mr. Racz adds Hungary's experience with developing a vaccine against the H5N1 virus will make it easier to battle other deadly strains of bird flu as well.

But the Director of Public Health of the European Commission, Fernand Sauer, tells VOA it is too early to say whether the Hungarian vaccine is effective. "This vaccine has not yet been evaluated and has been [just] announced. And a couple of vaccine producers which are more widely known in Europe have also announced their intention to submit...So it is a good thing that we have several candidates and given the normal limitations of vaccines production, because they are only geared for the normal vaccination, it is good to have more contenders and the European medicines agency will be able to evaluate all of them and they will only approve the ones that are effective," he said.

European health officials are meeting in Budapest to lay down the framework to cooperation in sharing information and coordinating preventive measures.