bird flu - simulation exercise expected soon - 19/10/2005

link to article in The Times

The government was not taking lightly the looming threat posed by avian influenza, Environment Minister George Pullicino said yesterday as he announced a series of measures aimed at preventing and preparing for any outbreak of the disease.

The measures include a simulation exercise to be held soon, the registration of birds by backyard breeders, the strengthening of frontier controls, checks on wild ducks and the dissemination of information to hunters.

The date and time of the simulation exercise will be announced closer to the day, the minister said.

The exercise will take about three hours and see the collaboration of the police, the Civil Protection Department, the Armed Forces, paramedics and government vets. Around 60 people will be taking part.

A three-kilometre radius surrounding the "affected area" will be cordoned off, with nobody able to get in or out.

Mr Pullicino said some inconvenience might be caused, especially since some roads might be closed and checks will be conducted on a number of cars. He called for everyone's cooperation and urged people to understand the importance of such an exercise.

"It is important to calculate the response time and see how those involved will need to work together in case of an outbreak," he said.

In the eventuality, a ban would be imposed on moving the infected birds from the affected area and slaughter will take place on the spot, said Mireille Vella, the director of the international and legal coordination within the Food and Veterinary Division.

Backyard breeders were yesterday told to register their birds. Ducks, hens and turkeys should be registered with the local councils as from Friday, the minister said, adding that they have a week to do so.

He stressed the importance of being in possession of data about all the hens, ducks and turkeys.

Fears of avian influenza reached new heights this week as the virus spread to Europe, with Greece confirming its first case of bird flu while Croatia started testing for the virus. Just days ago both Turkey and Romania confirmed cases of avian influenza.

Many are fearing that the virus will spread, especially since the migration season has started.

However, Mr Pullicino said Malta was not on the principal flyway, although a small percentage of birds still came to the island.

The minister said samples of poultry from farms have been checked for some time and sampling will soon start on ducks in a number of bays around the island.

"We have not found any presence of the avian influenza virusto date," he said.

Frontier controls are being strengthened, especially at the Malta International Airport, Grand Harbour and the Freeport, while people travelling to affected countries are being informed of the precautions they should take.

Dr Vella stressed that nobody should try to import birds or feathers from the affected countries. The minister said discussions were underway with representatives of hunters and they were being sent a leaflet informing them how to handle the birds they catch.

He said there was no need to stop hunting as yet but added that the Federation for Hunting and Conservation had confirmed it would be prepared to accept any action which was clearly in the interest of public health.

Moreover, he said, BirdLife Malta was helping to collect samples from protected birds at the nature reserve.

The government was keeping tabs on what was happening in other countries and was represented on the EU's scientific committee, which was discussing the issue and taking decisions.

"It is not a case of the country taking unilateral decisions," he said.

Parliamentary secretary Francis Agius stressed the importance of not being alarmist. He said fears of the avian influenza should not affect chicken consumption.

Although there is the fear that the avian influenza can mutate to a form which spreads easily from person to person, and cause the next influenza pandemic, this has not yet happened. In fact, people who got ill with the H5N1 virus caught it through direct contact with infected poultry.

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