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“Government right to calm bird flu fears”

Migratory birds are being checked for signs of avian flu Keystone

Health experts have welcomed government action this week to get a grip on the bird flu health scare and calm public fears.

They say efforts to quash the “hysteria” surrounding the disease and the prospect of weekly cabinet briefings on the situation should help to reassure the population.

“In principle I think it is good to calm people down,” Karin Mölling, director of the institute of medical virology at Zurich University, told swissinfo.

“The number of people who have been infected is minimal, and it seems the chance of transmission to humans is rather low. So the government is doing the right thing at this point.”

In a typically robust performance on Wednesday, Interior Minister Pascal Couchepin sought to draw a line under the recent flu frenzy that sparked panic buying of the anti-viral drug, Tamiflu. He recalled that not a single person in Europe had been infected with avian flu.

The interior minister, who holds the health portfolio, also hammered home the message that the government was in control of the situation and prepared for any outbreak – a view endorsed by Luc Perrin, head of the laboratory of clinical virology at Geneva University Hospital.

“If you look at what the government has been doing over the years to prevent an influenza pandemic, we have never been better prepared than we are now,” he said.

Crossed wires

Couchepin also said he thought it “unlikely” that the deadly H5N1 virus would mutate into a form transmissible among humans.

His comments were somewhat out of synch with those uttered on the same day by the Federal Health Office, which insisted that it was not a question of whether a pandemic was coming, but when and how deadly it would be.

But Perrin said this “minor contradiction” was probably down to a poor choice of words by Couchepin and not evidence of a split in the government’s ranks.

“What the minister of health was saying is that there’s no evidence that the virus is jumping at the moment, and if the virus is going to pass from chickens to humans it’s not going to be in Switzerland but in Asia,” he said.

“We will have one or two months to prepare ourselves, because it will have to jump from country to country. This means it’s not going to happen tomorrow.”

According to Perrin, the situation has not been helped by the antics of the press, which has seized on the story and sown fear among the population.

While avian flu was indeed a concern for Europe and preventive measures were needed to stop it spreading, Perrin said suggesting that Europeans were about to catch it was wide of the mark.

“We are overreacting in the press,” he said. “I understand that it’s a sexy story but there are so many other health problems out there in other countries that people should be speaking about.”

Pandemic warnings

And he defended the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO), which has been criticised by some – including the Federal Veterinary Office – for issuing too many pandemic warnings.

The WHO has admitted that it is finding it difficult to tread a fine line between informing the public of the possibilities and “not creating a sense of panic”.

But Perrin insisted the organisation had got it right, arguing that the WHO had the support of the majority of health experts.

“Don’t forget that the WHO bases its decisions on the advice of world experts. Personally I think they are doing a good job,” he said.

Mölling pointed out that the organisation had more than 100 outposts around the world registering every single case of avian flu.

“The WHO has reacted fantastically. There isn’t a turkey in the world that can die without us noticing it,” she said.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Geneva

A 48-year-old Thai man has become the 67th person known to have been killed by the H5N1 strain of avian flu that has been moving steadily from Asia into Europe since re-emerging in South Korea in 2003.

Concern about the deadly strain of bird flu centres on scientists’ fears that it may mutate into a form that passes easily among humans, sparking a pandemic that may kill millions.

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