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EUROPEAN UNION COORDINATES ON MEASURES TO PREVENT PANDEMIC

Bird flu alerts government to action

SLOVAK officials assured the public that there is no reason to panic over the possible spread of bird flu, which has penetrated the borders of the European Union.

SLOVAK officials assured the public that there is no reason to panic over the possible spread of bird flu, which has penetrated the borders of the European Union.

EU foreign affairs ministers called for global cooperation to fight the virus.

"The EU will act fast and will coordinate its actions," Eduard Kukan, Slovakia's Foreign Affairs Minister said in a memo sent to The Slovak Spectator, following a meeting on October 18 with his EU counterparts in Luxembourg.

EU citizens are eagerly awaiting the laboratory results that will confirm or deny that the deadly H5N1 strain of the avian flu has reached Greece. If the deadly version of the virus has reached Greece this would be the first case within EU borders.

Meanwhile, Kukan expects the EU and the United Nations to answer the pandemic threat globally.

"Slovakia cannot afford to underestimate this matter. It is necessary to take all rational and realistic measures that will highlight the possible dangers that a pandemic could bring," Kukan said.

Despite experts' claims that it is only a matter of time before bird flu hits Slovakia, virologists agree that as yet there is no reason for panic.

Vice-chancellor of Trnava University and Head of the Virology Laboratory, Alexander Szabó said that transmission of avian flu to humans is very rare.

However, the Slovak government has already taken several steps to minimize the risk of the spread of the infection. It has established a Pandemic Commission consisting of several ministries that are to act without delay if and when necessary.

A pandemic plan is being prepared by the Health Ministry in cooperation with the Agriculture Ministry, Transport Ministry, Interior Ministry and Ministry of Defence, Karol Farkašovský, the Health Ministry's spokesperson told The Slovak Spectator.

The plan incorporates recent guidelines from the World Health Organization. It also estimates how much money the country is to spend on medicine to fight the infection. The cabinet will discuss the plan on Wednesday, October 26.

"The Health Ministry does not underestimate the situation. [The ministry] is strongly against creating media hysteria and catastrophic scenarios. Slovakia is one of only three countries in Europe to have at its disposal a top, equipped virology laboratory and healthcare centre that is used for the intensive treatment of patients with serious viral infections," said Farkašovský.

The Agriculture Ministry has taken several steps to prevent the spread of the avian flu. On the basis of the European Commission guidelines, the state veterinary and food authority stopped imports of poultry from Romania, Greece, Turkey, Russia and Kazakhstan, Katarína Czajlíková, spokeswoman for the Agriculture Ministry told The Slovak Spectator.

Stricter levels of border controls were imposed on the importation of poultry meat and poultry products. As soon as inspectors find that a shipment is from a country from which poultry imports are banned, or that the packaging does not correspond with EU guidelines, it will be refused entry to the country, and therefore the EU.

The Virology and Food Authority also asked border and customs inspectors to check non-trade packages and shipments for live birds or products made from poultry meat. In addition, private persons crossing borders with their pet birds are banned from entering the country.

All poultry farmers and commercial slaughter houses in Slovakia received emergency plans prepared under EU guidelines in the face of the threat of an avian flu pandemic.

In accordance with the EU measures, farmers are also being asked to separate water birds from the rest of their stock and to cull farm birds that come into contact with wild birds.

Livestock is being monitored and checked for signs of avian flu using methods approved by the European Commission. Samples are taken and sent to the national reference laboratory for avian flu, the State Veterinary Institute in Zvolen.

Ornithologists believe that Slovakia could be infected by migrating birds that stop on their way from the Far East to Africa in the waters of Gabčíkovo.

If a case of avian flu is confirmed, special measures will be taken in the area of the infection. The Pandemic Commission is to buy equipment that would kill and eliminate birds from the contaminated area.

Czajlíková told the Spectator that shooting wild birds confirmed as carrying the virus would be one of the measures imposed by the ministry. She added that it was important to state that this would be just one of many measures the state would take. "It certainly won't be the most important one," Czajlíková added.

Farkašovský pointed out that at the moment it is important to focus on prevention. Slovakia has enough human flu vaccinations and in case of temporary distribution problems, the ministry is able to step in and help.

Despite ordinary flu vaccinations not being able to stop avian flu, it can help the human organism to improve its natural immunity, experts say.

For those who are wondering whether eating poultry is dangerous, Szabó said: "We do not have to be afraid of eating poultry. The virus is safely destroyed at 60 degrees Celsius."

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