The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned Jan. 11 that the H5N1 strain of bird flu could become endemic in Turkey. Although the virus presents no threat of pandemic in its present form, the news that it could overtake Turkey's bird population presents a grave risk to Eastern European poultry farms.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said Jan. 11 that the H5N1 strain of avian flu could soon become endemic in Turkey not simply because there have been 15 reported human cases, but because the virus seems to be establishing itself in local bird populations. Although this warning does not represent a doomsday scenario for humanity, the presence of a fertile breeding ground for the virus to Europe's east could spell disaster for poultry farmers in the former Soviet Union (FSU) and Europe, who — given their lack of experience and the differences in how chickens are raised — are less prepared to deal with the threat than their Asian counterparts. Although the virus is considered quite lethal to birds, avian flu currently presents no risk to the human population at large, due to its lack of contagiousness among humans. Although mutation is always a possibility, the relatively low number of human cases decreases the odds that the H5N1 virus will develop the means to successfully travel from human to human. Unless people work directly with slaughtered birds, they have little reason to worry about infection at this time. What makes the United Nations' announcement so disturbing is the relative vulnerability of the Eastern European poultry population in comparison to Asian countries such as China and Vietnam that have been dealing with the virus for several years now. The average chicken farmer in Thailand is likely to be more aware of the bird flu's warning signs, know the proper authorities to call and what precautionary measures to take — as compared, say, to a Romanian duck herder. Previous experience is much more useful than government warnings and information campaigns. As a result, the bird flu could quickly become endemic in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. If the entirety of Eastern Europe — or even merely Turkey — were to become an H5N1 breeding ground, poultry farmers throughout Europe would be at risk. The giant, centralized factory farms of Western Europe — while better equipped technologically, financially and legally — will become liabilities in the case of an H5N1 spread. One infection will result in the culling of millions of birds, rather than a few hundred at a village farm. During a bird flu outbreak in the Netherlands in 2003, Dutch authorities killed 30.7 million chickens — roughly one-third of the country's entire chicken population — costing the sector between $450 million and $600 million dollars. The threat of such a blow to its farming industry has Germany on the verge of ordering the enclosure of all poultry to help ward off the spread of the virus. Western Europe nevertheless will likely be in a much better position to deal with the avian flu virus than the East. Romanian and Turkish farmers do not possess the resources of their industrialized brethren to the West, or the hard-won experience of their counterparts in Eastern Eurasia. The probable result will be a bird flu endemic in Turkey, Romania, and a smattering of FSU states, but one that will be able to stretch out with every wild bird migration to the farms of Western Europe.