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Swiss want to combat bird flu at its roots

A zoo employee in Indonesia sprays bird cages with disinfectant

(Keystone)

Switzerland has pledged nearly SFr5 million ($3.9 million) to the United Nations to combat the spread of avian flu from Asia to Europe.

As part of its prevention efforts, the government ordered an increase in safety measures at the country's main airports.

The funds are earmarked for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's projects to contain an influenza pandemic, the interior ministry said on Friday.

So far, 116 cases of bird flu transmitted to humans have been reported worldwide. At least 65 people have been killed in Asia since the outbreak of the flu in 2003.

But Thomas Zeltner, director of the Federal Health Office, hopes that the virus can be eradicated before it spreads any further.

At the same time senior veterinary officials reiterated that the risk of bird flu being brought into Switzerland was low.

Despite the assurances, the cabinet decided to beef up checks at airports in a bid to prevent contaminated birds from being smuggled into the country.

Vaccine strategy

Poultry imports from affected countries mainly in Asia, Russia and Kazakhstan were banned at the beginning of 2004.

Earlier this month the Swiss authorities began testing migratory birds for avian influenza as part of a Europe-wide screening programme.

Zeltner added that anti-viral drug stockpiles had been made for about 25 per cent of the Swiss population, enough to treat patients and medical personnel in an initial phase of a pandemic.

In addition, the government is prepared to buy 100,000 supplies of a vaccine to combat the human form of avian flu, known as H5N1. The vaccine is expected to go on sale within the next few months.

The cabinet is to decide by the end of the year on its vaccination strategy, including proposals to rely on the product of a Swiss-based company.

New estimates

Meanwhile, the Geneva-based World Health Organization on Friday revised down its estimate for the expected number of casualties in the event of a bird-flu pandemic.

A spokesman said two to 7.4 million deaths was a reasonable working forecast for a global influenza pandemic.

The estimate contradicts a previous figure of up to 150 million victims, announced by David Navarro, the newly-named UN coordinator for avian and human influenza.

The biggest pandemic in recent history was the Spanish flu pandemic which caused the deaths of 50 million people in 1918.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Ways the bird-flu virus could spread to Europe:

Importing contaminated poultry products (import bans in place)

Illegal imports (smuggling of meat and live birds)

Migratory birds

Travel of infected humans

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