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Steering clear of avian flu

Foreign Affairs offers advice for Canadians heading to affected areas, while the WTO condemns 'unnecessary scaremongering'

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Canadian travellers are being advised by government agencies to keep abreast of developments in the spread of avian flu, which has moved westward from Asia to Turkey, Russia, Romania and Greece.

On Monday, Greece confirmed the country's first positive avian flu result, after tests on turkeys from farms on Oinousses, a northeastern Aegean islet near the Turkish coast.

It could be a week before authorities determine whether the virus is the H5N1 strain that can be lethal to humans. The virus has killed more than 60 people in Asia.

On Wednesday, Russia's Agriculture Ministry said the virulent virus -- already detected in Siberia in the summer -- had been detected in the province of Tula, west of the Ural mountains, apparently borne by wild ducks.

Health agencies are now concerned that the flu will spread to East Africa with migrating birds.

Meanwhile, the World Tourism Organization is urging government and health organizations, as well as the media, not to exaggerate the threat from avian flu.

"We must ensure that people are not deterred from travelling without good reason," WTO secretary-general Francesco Frangialli said this week. "Unnecessary scaremongering can cause a sharp drop in tourism that squeezes the economies, especially those of developing nations and the incomes of millions of workers in this industry."

He urged governments and the media to "act responsibly to prevent a repeat of the SARS scare of 2003. We know that the avian flu epidemic is very likely to happen, but not what regions it could hit or for how long. But we do know from our previous experience with SARS that its effect on tourism could be substantial."

SARS is a point of reference as to just what can happen, Frangialli said. "And the effects on tourism then were more those of an 'infodemic' -- too much news, often unsubstantiated and speculative -- than an epidemic."

According to the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, outbreaks of avian flu have now been reported in 11 Asian countries and continue to persist in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, China, Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan.

While human cases of avian flu have occurred in Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand since December, 2003, they were mostly caused by direct contact with infected poultry, the Public Health Agency of Canada says. More than 60 infected humans have died.

The health agency, Foreign Affairs and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are offering the following advice for travellers to affected areas:

Avoid contact with domestic poultry and wild birds (the virus has been detected in magpies, crows, pigeons and gulls). This includes staying away from farms and markets where live and slaughtered birds are sold.

Make sure the poultry you eat is well cooked (juice should run clear and no pink meat should be visible). Eggs should also be thoroughly cooked.

Maintain high standards of hygiene. Wash hands thoroughly (at least 20 seconds with hot, soapy water), especially after contact with poultry or egg products. If no clean water and soap is available, use alcohol-based antiseptic hand rinses.

Obtain a flu shot. While this season's vaccination does not protect against avian influenza, it reduces the chance of mixing human and avian viruses -- which could create a new virus that is more dangerous and easily spread.

Declare all animal products you bring back to Canada.

Travellers who have visited a farm in an affected country should ensure that clothing and footwear is disinfected immediately after arriving back in Canada.

Travellers planning to visit affected countries can monitor the following websites for up-to-date information:

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