The Czech Republic is stepping up measures against the spread of bird flu as cases of the potentially deadly H5N1 virus have been reported in wild swans in neighbouring Austria and Germany - the closest ever to Czech borders. The H5N1 strain has also been detected in several countries in the southeast of Europe. The Czech authorities say that although there is no immediate danger, safety precautions need to be taken.
According to the Agriculture Ministry, there are around 700 major poultry farms in the Czech Republic. As of Thursday, commercial farmers will be banned from allowing their birds to wander freely outside. The ban won't affect the hundreds of thousands of small breeders but they have also been recommended to prevent any contact between their livestock and wild birds. Josef Duben of the Czech State Veterinary Authority.
"Commercial poultry farmers will have to keep their fowl indoors and on top of that they have to secure the buildings against wild birds - which means they will have to put nets on the windows and so on. And as of March 1st, all poultry fairs and exhibitions will be banned."
I also spoke to Petr Vorisek from the conservation group the Czech Society for Ornithology. He says that it while separating water fowl from wild water birds is reasonable, as transmission there is most likely, in the case of other species, the measure is disputable.
"Certainly, keeping poultry outside of contact with wild birds is one of the bio-security measures which can prevent or reduce outbreaks of avian flu but the question is what species of wild birds are being prevented from contact with poultry - because not all wild bird species are the same as far as the transmission of avian flu is concerned.
"And a bigger question is whether wild birds are really the main cause of the spreading of avian flu. So far there is not really enough evidence about wild birds being the main factor in the spread of avian flu. In fact, most evidence available so far is that illegal transport - between countries and continents - of poultry meat and other domestic avian products is the main cause of the spreading of avian flu."
The Czech Republic, together with the rest of the EU, had stopped all imports of poultry, exotic birds, eggs and feathers from countries where bird flu had been reported.
While some experts fear an epidemic could break out among poultry in Europe as migrating birds return from Africa in the spring, others dispute that opinion and say that protective measures, such as putting nets on the windows of farm buildings, could even endanger some wild species. Petr Vorisek again.
"Ninety percent of barn swallows in the Czech Republic and other European countries breed in human settlements, in buildings, usually in farmhouses and buildings with poultry, cattle or other animals. There is no reason why barn swallows would transmit avian flu even though they come from Africa. So this might be a problem for the barn swallow population because, suddenly, they arrive in the spring, in late March, and will find all their breeding facilities closed and they won't find any place where to breed."
Even if bird flu were to spread among poultry in the Czech Republic, the Chief Hygiene Officer Michael Vit says transmission to humans is less likely here than in countries where people live in close contact with birds and where fatal cases have been reported. But Dr Vit says the authorities need to be prepared even for potential human-to-human transmissions.
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