Birds heading south for the winter from Siberia may carry a deadly strain of avian flu to the Balkan peninsula and mingle with other flocks from northern Europe, experts said on Thursday.
SOFIA Birds heading south for the winter from Siberia may carry a deadly strain of avian flu to the Balkan peninsula and mingle with other flocks from northern Europe, experts said on Thursday.
Millions of birds migrate each year to Black Sea neighbours Romania and Bulgaria for the milder winter climate, making the area a potential gateway to central Europe for the bird flu virus, which has already swept into Russia from southeast Asia.
Samuel Jutzi, head of the United Nations agency in charge of monitoring and controlling the flu, said its quick spread indicated migratory birds may be able to carry it over long distances and that it could reach the Balkans in a few months.
"Knowing the flyways and the bird species that use them, there is a high likelihood that the virus will continue to spread as it has so far," Jutzi, Director of the Animal and Production and Health Division of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organisation, told Reuters.
"Particularly in the southeastern part of the Balkans, given that these flyways go down there ... It is quite probable in the future and is a major concern for us."
The European Commission has said there is a relatively low risk of migratory birds spreading the virus but has banned poultry products from Russia and Kazakhstan.
One strain of bird flu potentially dangerous to humans, H5N1, has decimated flocks of poultry in southeast Asia and has killed more than 50 people over the past two years.
H5N1 has been officially registered in six Russian regions in Siberia and the Urals, and has also been confirmed in neighbouring Kazakhstan.
Experts fear the strain, which has killed around half of the people who contract it, could mutate into a variation easily spread among humans and spark a pandemic that could kill tens of millions of people.
EUROPE'S LARGEST WETLANDS
Lakes and rivers along the Black Sea coast ranging from Ukraine to northern Turkey attract millions of birds each winter from an area stretching from northern Russia to Scandinavia.
Europe's largest wetlands, Romania's Danube delta, and lakes in northern Bulgaria, are popular among flocks of red-breasted geese from Siberia as well as white-fronted geese from Scandinavia, Poland, and Germany.
"There is a risk of spreading the deadly strain of flu to local wildlife if any of them is infected," said Boris Barov, head of Bulgarian Society for Protection of Birds.
Jutzi said countries in southeast Europe may lack the capacity to detect and deal with a widespread outbreak.
Bulgaria and Romania are two of Europe's poorest countries.
"They are presumably less prepared to detect and react early and also to put into place the necessary movement controls on poultry to really reduce the virus's spread," Jutzi said. "That is of quite substantial concern to us."
Both countries have banned the import of wild and domestic birds from Russia and Kazakhastan. Bulgaria introduced a monitoring programme for early detection of bird flu in 2002, and Romania carries out random testing in the Danube delta.
So far they have detected no cases.
"We are closely watching the situation and are in contact with neighbouring countries and World Organisation for Animal Health. We are ready to react," said Georgi Georgiev, a scientist with Bulgarian Veterinary Institute.
(Additional reporting by Tsvetelia Ilieva in Sofia and Radu Marinas in Bucharest)