EU ready to deal with bird flu according to ECDC director

Bird flu will be around for at least another year or two, according to Zsuzsanna Jakab, head of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), who visited Athens recently to attend the center’s board meeting. Jakab spoke to Kathimerini about the way Europe has prepared to deal with the problem, the level of readiness in Greece and about the disease itself, which, for the moment at least, does not appear to be a threat. The ECDC began operations about a year ago and bird flu is its first challenge. What has been achieved so far and how ready is Europe at present? Bird flu arrived about six months after the center opened, so we had some time within those months to establish the basic infrastructure and develop our programs. The appearance of bird flu in Europe helped us to further determine the ECDC’s role and to set up channels of communication among member states, the European Union and the European Commission. At present, we are regularly checking the monitoring system in the event that a case appears among humans and we are getting information from the European Commission about cases among birds. So we have a continuous picture of what is happening in every country in Europe; we collect scientific data about the development of the H5N1 virus on a regular basis and carry out evaluation studies of the risks to human populations, on the basis of which we base our recommendations regarding protection from the disease, preventive measures for those exposed to the virus and the registration of cases by health officials. In general terms, however, I would say that in Europe, both the public and the authorities are well informed and prepared for bird flu. It has the best monitoring system both for bird flu and for animal diseases in general. Even in the event of a flu pandemic, which certainly will appear at some time, although we don’t know when or which flu, the EU is ready. But, of course, there is always a margin for improvement. What about Greece? Greece is well prepared to handle an outbreak of bird flu, or even a pandemic, and has come a long way since October 2005, when we began to work with the country’s health services. We have visited three organizations in Greece and are very impressed with the professionalism of the experts. I am referring in particular to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control but also to the Health Ministry services. You are on the right track but there are still some things that need to be done, but that applies to every country in Europe. In recent months, we have had the impression that bird flu has been on the wane, at least over most of Europe. Is that true? It appears that bird flu is seasonal, especially in Europe, where the main way it is transmitted is via migratory birds. That is why it appears in early spring and in October-November. It will certainly be with us for at least another year or two and we should not panic if there are cases in humans. What is important is to have a powerful and effective monitoring system. We should also be on the alert and closely monitor the movements of migratory birds. Have there been any new scientific developments in the fight against bird flu? At what stage is the research into a vaccine? Over the past 10 years, this virus has not changed so it has not been possible for it to be transmitted from one human to another. And until we reach that point, it seems there is no risk of a pandemic. As for a vaccine, I can tell you that there is a lot of activity. Several multinational pharmaceutical firms are experimenting with vaccines based on the H5N1 model and several clinical studies are in progress. Already two firms have submitted applications to the European Pharmaceuticals Organization for the approval of vaccines.