Europe is ready to deal with a nearly certain outbreak of a bird flu pandemic among humans within the next 10 years, says a top EU medical expert.
Professor Johan Giesecke of the European Centre for Disease Protection and Control (ECDC) was speaking after chief veterinary and medical officers of the 25 EU nations met to discuss protecting European workers in contact with poultry.
'It might not happen tomorrow, or in the next few years, but it is certain that there will be a bird flu pandemic which will affect humans within the next 10 years, he said.
'The stakes are high. A pandemic could see 25 percent of Europe's workforce out of work sick, and put enormous strain on Europe's healthcare infrastructure. People need to wake up now.' he said.
The ECDC, set up in May to pool expertise and help coordinate the EU's national public health authorities, also recommends that children who come in to contact with infected birds receive reduced doses of antiviral medicine according to their weight.
Since October, four outbreaks in Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Ukraine have been confirmed as the H5N1 strain, which has killed 69 people in Asia.
Scientists fear H5N1 risks causing a pandemic in which millions could die if it mutates into a form that spreads easily among humans. But there is no sign so far that the virus has changed in that way.
Meanwhile, European countries' chief medical and veterinary officers endorsed guidelines to protect poultry workers from avian flu. These guidelines provide European governments with appropriate surveillance measures in carrying out local risk assessment and controlling infection of birds.
Contact with infected birds should be minimized and people should be separated from possible sources of infection.
The guidelines recommended use of protective equipment such as disposable gloves, masks, goggles or helmets when dealing with suspicious birds, and the use of anti-viral drugs if needed, in targeted pre-exposure and post-exposure prophylaxis.
To help reduce the impact of possible exposure to bird flu, vaccinations against seasonal flu should be considered, and people potentially exposed should be carefully monitored, the guidelines said.
ECDC believes the risk of poultry workers being infected by the lethal H5N1 strain of bird flu virus is low, however the risk of human infection following exposure to other highly pathogenic avian flu, such as H7N7, is higher even though the disease these cause in humans tends to be less dangerous.
The European Union (EU) imposed an import ban on live birds and other poultry products from Croatia, Romania, Russia and Turkey following outbreaks of avian flu in these countries in recent months.
A raft of biosecurity measures have been introduced in the EU to guard against the spread of bird flu. National authorities of the EU member states were ordered to regularly reevaluate the high-risk areas and apply appropriate protection measures.
The deadly H5N1 bird flu virus, which has so far only been transmitted from birds to humans, has killed 69 people and infected more than 130 around the world. Health experts have warned of a catastrophic global pandemic if the virus mutates into a form that easily passes among people.