Regional experts to discuss bird flu

Public health officials from around the Balkans and the Black Sea region are to meet in Athens this weekend to agree upon a common «alert and surveillance» system to stem the spread of bird flu. Hosted by Greece’s Health Minister Nikitas Kaklamanis, the one-day conference tomorrow is designed to hammer out measures to coordinate «reinforced cooperation» on the issue among more than a dozen participating countries. Ministers and experts from Albania, Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Georgia, Romania, Serbia-Montenegro and Turkey will officially take part in the talks, which will also be attended by European Union Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou. In his address, Kyprianou is expected to argue that the EU can play a decisive role in the fight against the virus, sources close to the commissioner said. The Greek organizers have also invited representatives from Azerbaijan and Russia to the closed-door conference, and are awaiting confirmation from Moldova and Ukraine. «Among countries represented at the conference, some are European Union member states, others are on the path to accession, and others are our neighbors,» said a source close to Kyprianou. «The European Union wants to show that it is ready to assist these countries and help them benefit from its expertise.» The Black Sea and Balkan regions lie in the path of migrating birds which are suspected carriers of the H5N1 virus, a strand of avian flu potentially deadly to humans in its Asiatic form. Four of the states invited to the Athens talks – Croatia, Romania, Russia and Turkey – have already had experience with the H5N1 strand, after birds killed by the virus were discovered within their borders. But whether these economically and politically disparate states – some of which have strained bilateral relations – can cooperate effectively remains to be seen. «It’s a bit vague. Nobody knows what can come out of such meetings,» a diplomat told AFP, adding however that «the principle (of the talks) in itself is beneficial.» «Until this moment, each state has taken its own measures without bothering about what the others do. Now, we have countries at the forefront of the risk sitting around the same table to discuss what they can do together. It’s a big step,» the diplomat said. Greece itself had a brush with the avian flu scare in October, when the authorities announced that a live turkey with antibodies to the H5 type of avian flu – which only kills birds – was found on an eastern Aegean islet. But follow-up tests on samples from the same turkey flock turned up negative at a European Union laboratory 12 days after the case arose. At the time, the Greek health minister personally traveled to the islet and had a chicken lunch to allay fears over the safety of poultry consumption. But his intervention did not prevent a dramatic decline in demand for poultry products across the country which lasted for days.

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