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Officials play down bird flu threat

The authorities are checking wild birds for avian flu

(Keystone)

Swiss health and veterinary officials say the possibility that avian flu has spread to Turkey and Romania is no cause for alarm.

Switzerland's stance comes at a time when international organisations are warning of a flu pandemic. But Swiss officials say they want to be sure that the population listens if the danger becomes more acute.

At a joint media conference in the Swiss capital, Bern, the Federal Health Office and Veterinary Office said that cases of bird flu in Romania had yet to be confirmed and the virus type in Turkey was still unknown.

The authorities said there was no cause for panic in Switzerland.

Hans Wyss, the director of the Veterinary Office, reiterated that, although there was some danger to humans, bird flu mainly affected animals.

Nevertheless, officials said they were ready in case the virus crossed the country's borders.

"From the public health authorities there have also been intense preparations for a worst-case scenario in case the H5N1 virus is detected in humans," said Christian Griot from the Institute of Virology and Immunoprophylaxis at the Veterinary Office.

"Switzerland has built up a stock of an anti-viral drug to combat the disease in humans and the government is currently seeking to buy a vaccine," he told swissinfo.

The H5N1 strain of avian flu has been responsible for at least 65 human deaths across Asia since 2003, with infection occurring through contact with diseased birds.

This strain is known to pass from animals to humans; scientists fear it might mutate and pass from human to human.

Satisfied

On Monday Switzerland suspended imports of poultry from Turkey and Romania in line with measures adopted by the European Union.

Border checks have also been heightened and the wild bird population surveyed. Advice has also been given to travellers and poultry farmers.

However, those working with poultry should be immunised against flu, said officials.

They added that extra measures would only be taken if the virus reached the EU. This would include the setting up of a crisis centre.

Officials said that it was a deliberate policy to limit warnings over bird flu.

Other organisations have already issued stark statements, including the Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO), which estimates that a pandemic could cause up to 7.4 million deaths worldwide.

"The WHO issues warnings on a regular basis every four to five weeks about the imminent outbreak of a bird flu pandemic," said Griot.

"The risk is that if you warn too often, people won't listen any more.

"Our strategy in Switzerland is to limit our warnings about bird flu in Asia. We want to make sure that people do listen to us when there is real danger," he added.

Duty to inform

For its part, the WHO stressed it was not scaremongering but had a duty to inform the public about a potential threat.

"I hope we are not creating a sense of panic... because we need the public's trust to encourage governments to begin or continue pandemic preparedness efforts," WHO spokesman Dick Thompson told swissinfo.

However, Thompson suggested that the organisation had difficulty treading a fine line.

"This is a real dilemma for the WHO. It's possible this pandemic won't come for another 30 years and, if it comes next year, it might be so mild that you don't even notice it," he added.

The United Nations said on Tuesday that it was exploring ways to step up the production of a vaccine in case the virus mutates and sparks a human influenza pandemic.

It said it would take six months to build up a stockpile of vaccines. But health authorities across the world are worried that might be too long if a pandemic flu strain emerges.

swissinfo

In brief

The government will decide by the end of the year what measures should be taken in case of a pandemic, including the creation of medication stockpiles.

Experts estimate that the cost of stockpiling medications could reach SFr14 million ($10.8 million). A SFr2.7 million pandemic fund has already been created.

The money is being temporarily diverted from funds for machine oil reserves.

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