NEWS

Cooperation on bird flu

VOULIAGMENI – The European Union’s health commissioner promised closer cooperation on Saturday with countries in Southeastern Europe to help prevent a human pandemic spawned by bird flu, but did not respond to requests for financial assistance. Health agencies around the world are scrambling to isolate infected birds and stockpile drugs amid fears the virus could mutate into a form that directly threatens humans. At least 67 people – most of them poultry workers – have died in Asia from bird flu since 2003, but the current form of the virus does not spread easily between people. «We will remain in constant contact with these countries of Southeast Europe… at a government level and through experts,» Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said. He was speaking after talks Saturday with health ministers and senior officials from 14 Balkan and Eastern European countries meeting at this seaside resort near Athens. «This is a global issue. So every regional arrangement is very important,» he told The Associated Press. «We are working with the countries to coordinate surveillance efforts,» he added. «Early detection is extremely important.» Four of the countries represented – Turkey, Croatia, Romania and Russia – have had confirmed cases of the deadly H5N1 bird flu strain in poultry. «The main concern is that a flu virus… could transmit from humans to humans as a unique strain that we have no defenses against,» Kyprianou said. He said: «Financial challenges are a… concern worldwide,» including in Europe, referring to high costs for drugs to combat a potential outbreak. Greek Health Minister Nikitas Kaklamanis said: «Some countries in a discreet and polite way made requests for technical and financial assistance.» However, he added that there were no plans for financial aid. He said: «All countries presented a national response plan to bird flu and that is encouraging – some plans were comprehensive, some were less comprehensive.» Officials from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Serbia-Montenegro and Turkey attended Saturday’s meeting, together with delegates from Russia, Cyprus, Georgia and Armenia. Officials from Azerbaijan and Ukraine did not attend. Kaklamanis called for the meeting during a bird flu scare in Greece last month. The scare later ended when tests on sick birds at a tiny turkey farm on the remote Greek island of Oinouses came back negative for the H5N1 strain. Croatia will host a regional bird flu summit early next year, Kaklamanis said.