bird flu that has raised fears of global pandemic has broken into the European continent, Russia confirmed yesterday, as neighbouring countries rushed to prepare their farmers, doctors, and even soldiers on border patrol for the spread of an infection moving rapidly westward from Asia.
Russia has been playing down concerns about avian influenza since it first detected the deadly H5N1 strain in Siberia last month. This week, however, as tests showed the virus has travelled thousands of kilometres across the country, Russian officials quietly invited experts from the United Nations to help.
"I have a green light to go to Moscow," said Juan Lubroth, senior officer at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, an agency tracking the virus.
The UN team hopes to arrive within a couple of weeks. At least 13,000 birds have already died of the disease in Russia; earlier this week, authorities said they have culled another 130,000 in an attempt to stop the outbreak.
Rospotrebnadzor, the Russian federal service for consumer protection, posted a statement on its website yesterday confirming that bird flu has been detected in the Kalmyk Republic, a southern region on the Caspian Sea. Officials had previously suggested that deaths among wild birds and domestic geese at the region's nature reserves were caused by parasitic worms.
The fight against bird flu on Europe's eastern flank will gain importance in mid-September, experts say, because migrating waterfowl could carry the virus from Russia into Europe and beyond. One strain of the flu has already killed 61 people in Southeast Asia, largely farmers and others who were in close contact with birds. The World Health Organization has repeatedly voiced concern that mutations might produce a virus that spreads easily between humans, with the potential to kill millions.
In the short term, the arrival of the Asian bird flu in Europe could devastate the farm economy. When a similar strain spread among Dutch chickens in 2003, authorities destroyed more than 31 million birds.
"Until now, this disease has located only in Asia," said Alexander Solokha, a waterfowl expert for Wetlands International in Moscow, which has been helping the Russian government monitor the disease. "But we can expect it will spread along the flyways, west toward the Black Sea."
Colder weather will push the birds even further southwest to their winter nesting grounds, Mr. Solokha said, which could spread the disease to Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Italy, Spain, and North Africa.
Despite the scale of the problem, some of the things Mr. Lubroth intends to tell his Russian counterparts are simple. For instance: Don't shoot wild birds.
"The shotgun method isn't much good," he said.
Local administrators of some Russian regions have suggested enlisting hunters for mass killings of waterfowl, because the wild birds can transmit the disease to livestock.
But experts say it's still unclear whether the disease has been carried by wild birds, shipments of poultry, or some other way across vast distances. Mr. Solokha warned that attacking flocks of birds would only scatter them and potentially spread the problem.
The FAO recommends focusing on prevention among domestic birds by isolating poultry with netting or enclosed barns.
Such measures would likely prove difficult to enforce on Russian family farms where chickens roam freely. Similar problems would face European countries where organic, free-range farming has grown popular, Mr. Lubroth said.
Renate Kuenast, Germany's agriculture minister, told reporters yesterday that Germany is ready to ban free-range poultry. And the government is reportedly considering new control measures for passengers arriving at airports from Russia.
The German authorities appear willing to wait before taking the precautions, but the Dutch Agriculture Ministry yesterday gave its commercial poultry industry just three days to shift their operations indoors, to prevent contact with wild birds.
Britain announced that doctors will receive 50-page technical guides next month to help them identify bird flu and contain outbreaks.
On Russia's western border, Ukrainian troops and customs officials have been instructed to watch for contraband poultry. The European Commission asked its member states last week to ban imports of feathers and live birds from Russia and Kazakhstan, but Ukraine has only blocked live chickens from infected regions.
While Europe scrambles to protect itself, Russia's largely state-controlled media have been skeptical about the threat. The RIA Novosti news agency published an analysis titled: "Bird flu in Russia -- scaremongering or real danger?"
Virus winging West
Europeans are getting increasingly concerned by the looming threat from the H5N1 bird virus, which has been moving steadily westward from Asia. This week, Russian officials said the virus - first detected in Siberia in July - has now been been confirmed in the Kalmyk Republic, on the Caspian Sea.
1. April, 2005, China: New strain of H5N1 virus detected in wild birds at Qinghai Lake, key breeding area for migratory birds that overwinter in Southeast Asia, Tibet and India.
2. July, Kazakhstan: Outbreak in Pavlodar region.
3. Late July, Siberia: Cases of H5N1 strain of bird flu confirmed -- genetic sequencing suggests virus is carried by migratory birds. Infection spreads westwards to Novosibirsk, Altai, Omsk, Tyumen and Kurgan.
4. Aug. 1, Tibet: Virus found in Lhasa.
5. Aug. 5, Vietnam: Death of 35-year-old man brings human death toll to 61 out of 115 cases.
6. Aug. 11, Mongolia: H5 virus confirmed in wild ducks, geese and swans.
7. Aug. 15, Russia: Virus reaches Chelyabinsk near Ural Mountains.
8. Autumn: Fear that virus will reach Russia's key agricultural regions of Krasnodar, Stavropol and Rostov. The Russian birds' migration routes extend into Bulgaria, Ukraine, Romania, Greece, Italy, Spain and North Africa.