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Health Experts Gather to Plan Response to European Bird Flu Outbreaks

Experts meeting in Brussels Wednesday and Thursday are promoting a series of measure to fight the spread of bird flu in the European Union. The meeting comes as new countries have detected a deadly strain in wild birds.

The veterinary experts in Brussels have endorsed plans to increase surveillance of the H5N1 strain of the virus in wild birds, and to ban imports of untreated feathers from non-European Union countries. The European Commission is also adding more than $2.25 million ($2.26 million) to national surveillance and testing programs for early detection of bird flu outbreaks.

On Tuesday, the H5N1 strain was confirmed among wild swans in Austria. German officials says they also appear to have detected the virus among dead wild swans, although they are still waiting for definitive results. German authorities have established a 10-kilometer surveillance zone around the area the birds were found.

And cases of the deadly strain have also been reported in Italy and Greece, as well as Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. Slovenia and Croatia are conducting further tests on suspected cases. The recent detection of the virus among wild birds in Africa, many of whom migrate to Europe, has only heightened alarm here.

Maria Zampaglione, spokeswoman for the World Organization for Animal Health in Paris, says bird flu itself is not anything new.

"What should be stressed here is that Asian influenza is a virus that has always been present in wild birds, and has always been out there. The new thing about this is the H5N1 strain that originated in Southeast Asia," she said.

For the moment, the Paris organization is not recommending European nations to adopt the most extreme measures of prevention - such as keeping poultry indoors - although Sweden, for one, has already done so. But it does recommend the early surveillance efforts that are now being discussed in Brussels, as well as greater precautions to ensure that domestic and wild birds are kept separated.