Thursday, May 25, 2006

Avian Scare

Initially I was going to analyze the EU's renewed demands for 2007 accession; since I can't turn on the TV anywhere in Romania without hearing something about the Avian flu, the former will have to wait and the bird-flu scare shall take priority - for now.

The Deal
In a nutshell, the Avian flu virus (H5N1) originated in Asian birds; ducks seem to be immune to it, but it's lethal in other birds, chickens included. According to ABC News, "Since 1997, over 120 million birds have died of the flu or been destroyed in an effort to stop the spread." Humans can contract the flu by handling infected birds. The
WHO reports 218 human cases with 124 deaths since 2003. NONE of these deaths took place in Romania. In fact, if we regard Turkey (4 deaths) as a fully-Asian country, the human death toll hasn't reached Europe yet.

The Fear
At least one case of human-to-human transmission was reported in Asia in 2005. HOWEVER, the virus is not yet in a form that is easily transmissible from person to person. There is significant concern that it may mutate and change into a more lethal version, inducing human-to-human contamination; this is NOT the reality at the moment. In fact, according to Romanian health authorities, the virus hasn't changed since the fall - which could facilitate the development of appropriate vaccination.

Where does Romania come in?
Multiple cases of bird flu have been reported in Romania since October 2005. The scare accelerated over the last month following outbrakes in various counties. Perhaps the most alarming report accounts for infected birds in Bucharest - apparently the first capital subjected to the virus. After the "termination" of 450,000 birds, human quarantine and diplomatic havoc, distressful political hypotheses are taking shape, such as the possibility of delayed EU accession on account of poor handling of the Avian crisis by Romanian authorities.

I have to admit that quarantine of several Bucharest areas and mass vaccination of individuals with the only preventive medicine assumed to have some effect on humans (Tamiflu) may have been too drastic. WHO representatives in Geneva definitely thought so; their recent severe criticism of the measure triggered the end of the quarantine on humans, announced today.

Truth be told, I think we'd rather be safe than sorry. Killing the birds, vaccinating the population, controlling national traffic, spending considerable amounts on acquisition of appropriate agricultural equipment are but a few of the measures taken by the government. So far, the only human casualties of the Avian scare in Romania are of a professional nature: several top veterinary officials have been dismissed as a result of their mediocre crisis approach. At the moment, the Romanian President asked the Prime Minister to take over the issue. For a parliamentary republic where the PM is the most important power player, the change signifies a considerable reaction to an ultimately veterinary concern.

Speaking from a region in Romania that hasn't witnessed any outbreaks thus far, it's probably easier for me not to seek a scapegoat. This wasn't the case of the Romanian Secret Service (SRI): in a recent report, they claimed the bird flu escalation was caused by poultry imports from Hungary and Slovakia. It's not hard to imagine the diplomatic repercussion of this claim; the Hungarian reaction hasn't been pleasant and since the Romanian President himself criticized the SRI report, the accusations hold little credibility.

What may be the worst and most alarming factor specific to Romania's approach on the Avian crisis is the general reaction. I don't believe the nature of the virus is fully understood or taken seriously in many rural areas that are still heavily relying on poultry farming. Exaggerated media paranoia may have some beneficial effect after all.

In the end, while preventive measures and alertness are far from superfluous, I hope anyone hurrying to add the Avian flu to the black list of Romanian shortcomings will pay more heed to the WHO statement: "Bird flu mainly affects poultry and rarely represents a threat to humans." (Mediafax)


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