In Europe, Bird Flu Hits Home
One dead cat. That's all it took to wake up Europeans to the reality of bird flu. Yes, global health officials have increasingly warned of the threat posed by the deadly strain of avian influenza, known as the H5N1 virus, since it re-emerged in Asia three years ago. But it wasn't until a stray cat on the German resort island of Ruegen died of bird flu last week that those admonitions came home to roost.
German authorities, responding to the first death from bird flu of a mammal in Europe, ordered pet owners in affected areas to keep their cats inside and their dogs on leashes. Still, hundreds of Germans dumped their cats with the animal welfare society out of fear of the contagion, which has killed at least 94 people worldwide.
Across Europe, demand for poultry has plummeted as the virus has spread westward. In Greece, poultry consumption has dropped 75 percent since H5N1 was reported there last month. In France, where bird flu has infected turkeys on a commercial farm, farmers began vaccinating ducks and geese. Lee Jong-Wook, director-general of the World Health Organization, tried to allay fears. "When poultry products are safely handled and properly cooked, humans are not at risk of acquiring H5N1 infection through food." But Europeans weren't buying it.
"It's just a matter of time" before bird flu makes its way to the United States, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt told Congress last week. The federal government announced that it had ordered 14 million courses of antiviral drugs to add to the 5.5 million already stockpiled. The feds want enough antivirals to treat 25 percent of the population, although no one knows if the drugs would work against a pandemic flu strain.
Infectious disease experts fear that bird flu's swift flight into Europe and Africa ups the odds that the virus will mutate into a form that spreads readily among humans, sparking a pandemic. The only sure thing is that bird flu seems unstoppable--and the spring bird migration, when millions of birds fly through North America, starts next month.
This story appears in the March 13, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.