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"Bird flu is here – don't panic!"

The front pages are shouting for calm swissinfo.ch

The news that bird flu has arrived dominates the front pages, with commentators urging calm alongside advice on how to protect oneself from the virus.

This content was published on February 27, 2006 - 08:32

The common view is that "the situation is serious but there's currently no reason to panic", as the Tages-Anzeiger in Zurich put it.

"The virus has arrived," announced Der Bund in the Swiss capital, Bern, portraying the virus as a military threat "invading from the west and the north at the same time".

It said the authorities were doing what they should – reacting quickly, informing the public and erecting protection zones where the virus was found. The paper was one of many to run a "how to protect yourself" list, anticipating readers' concerns by explaining that you can't get infected from eiderdown feathers.

The Tages-Anzeiger painted a poetic picture of no longer being able to enjoy a lakeside walk because wild ducks, geese and swans are fluttering around and paddling gently through the water, before adding "whoever reacts like this is totally overreacting".

Facts

Instead of panicking "we must now learn to live with the new risk" – adding that politicians must also react with cool expertise and lay the facts on the table.

This, it said, would give the public more confidence than the sight of several EU health officials gnawing on a chicken leg in front of the cameras.

"International cooperation is necessary as the epidemic affects everybody," it added.

Zurich's other major daily, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), was the most restrained of the Swiss papers.

Its side headline on the front page – it led with French demonstrations against anti-semitism – referred to a "bird flu alarm" in Switzerland and said a dead duck found in Geneva is assumed to have the fatal H5N1 strain of the virus.

The NZZ had minimal reaction and no comment.

Restrained

Newspapers in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, where the suspected H5N1 carrier was found, were also self-controlled.

Geneva's Le Temps, stuck to reporting the facts and repeated the precautions humans should take. There was no editorial, but the paper sent a reporter to do a vox pop with promenaders down by the lake. "Bird flu is not going to change what I do," was the standard response.

"Stop spreading bird flu!" is what some readers of the Tribune de Genève have apparently been accusing its editors.

In its commentary, the paper says that those readers might well suffocate on today's edition but defends itself by saying that a large part of the population want objective facts about a virus that from now on is a problem for public health and the economy.

"Bird flu is spreading like a virus through the media, but that is not going to last," it said. "The novelty will pass, but the virus will return in relative anonymity – who still worries about mad cow disease when they order a steak in a restaurant?"

Grim for birds

The mass circulation tabloid, Blick – in its four-page bird flu special – ringed the exact location where the infected bird was found as if it were an earthquake epicentre and was the only paper not to use the words "don't panic" prominently.

It relegated "don't panic" to point nine of its ten "everything you need to know" list and its biggest headline was "Don't shoot virus bombers from the sky", referring to government advice not to shoot crows.

Der Bund pointed out that as grim the situation is for birds, humans are only in danger if the virus begins to jump from person to person.

"That could happen somewhere in the world tomorrow – but also in three or 20 years."

swissinfo, Thomas Stephens

Key facts

There are 30,000 poultry farmers in Switzerland with eight million hens, geese and ducks.
The authorities ordered all poultry to be confined indoors from last Monday.
The first confinement lasted from October 25 to December 15, 2005.
Information telephone lines: +41 31 322 21 00 and +41 31 322 21 99.

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In brief

The first known case of a human contracting the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu was in Hong Kong in 1997.

It spread in the following years to about a dozen other Asian nations, and arrived in Europe - Turkey, Romania and Croatia - last year.

The first cases were registered in Africa at the beginning of this month.

The H5N1 virus was found in dead birds in six European countries, including France, Italy, Germany and Austria.

Around 170 people have contracted the disease worldwide, and more than 90 of them have died.

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