EU to approve bird flu vaccination for poultry

The Netherlands and France are expected today to be given EU permission to start vaccinating poultry flocks against bird flu.

Barring last-minute hitches, the controversial decision will be taken by EU veterinary experts who have been meeting in Brussels for two days to consider stepping up controls as the deadly H5NI strain of the virus spreads across Europe.

Vaccination has divided Europe because of disputes about its cost and effectiveness. There is also serious concern about the potential trade risk for EU export markets for poultry.

But the EU's Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health is expected to decide that limited vaccination plans should be given the go-ahead.

Any other EU countries wishing to begin vaccination programmes would have to make separate applications for EU-level approval.

Germany, Austria, Denmark and Portugal raised strong objections on the first day of the committee talks.

Britain also voiced concerns about what vaccination could achieve.

And EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou has questioned the effectiveness of vaccinations.

But the commission's formal proposal to the veterinary experts is likely to clear the way for the Dutch and French to embark on "preventive vaccination" if they wish.

The vaccination vote was due as Slovakia became the eighth EU member state to confirm outbreaks of bird flu.

The H5 virus has been found in two wild birds and samples have been sent to the EU's special laboratory in Weybridge, Surrey, to establish whether the cases involve the deadly H5NI strain.

The Slovak authorities have triggered pre-agreed control measures which any EU country finding bird flu must apply. They involve setting up a three-kilometre protection zone around the area where any infected birds were found and a surrounding "surveillance zone" a further seven kilometres deep.

Those moves, already in force in seven other affected member states, were reinforced by the committee's decision last week to establish additional "buffer zones" beyond the surveillance limits.

Poultry from the "buffer zone" can only be moved if "handled, treated, stored and transported separately from other products".

That leaves vaccination as the big question amid expectations that more EU countries will be hit by the disease.

Britain's concern is based on the fact that no vaccine is yet available directly to tackle the H5NI strain - and that the more general vaccination holds no guarantees of curing the disease or preventing its spread.

"There is no bird flu in poultry in Britain, or in poultry anywhere in the EU," said a British government spokesperson. "We are keeping vaccination under urgent review, but we remain to be convinced that it is the right solution."

British Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett said there was a risk that vaccination would mask the disease, lowering the incidence of fatalities in bird flocks but allowing the low-level spread of H5NI undetected.

Conservative MEP and farmer Neil Parish warned that vaccination would be "unworkable."

He went on: "The use of an injected poultry vaccine is frankly unrealistic. It would inflict huge costs on poultry farmers, cause undue distress to poultry and, owing to the difficulties of catching free-range poultry, may not act as a blanket solution."

He said vaccination would only be effective if EU laboratories could develop a low-cost, multi-strain vaccine that could be administered orally in the poultry's water, or sprayed.

One problem is that vaccination immediately affects the "disease-free" status of commercial poultry, potentially closing off export markets. But EU officials said French and Dutch vaccination would not necessarily hit exports from other EU countries.

France is ready to spend about €733,000 to fight the virus by vaccinating 900,000 birds.

But there is no question of a financial contribution from the EU yet. Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel says the situation is not serious enough to justify compensation but promised if there was a bird flu outbreak in poultry there would be support for farmers suffering economic loss.

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