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Bird flu "could already be in Sweden"

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13:06 CEST+02:00
Swedish authorities are on high alert following a new outbreak of the deadly bird flu virus in the Tula region of Russia, 200km south of Moscow.

Apparently ditching the 'no panic' message of last week, some experts are warning that the virus could already be in Sweden, while more conservative analysts say that it could be expected some time in the autumn.

"Now it's serious," said Jan Danielsson, a veterinary inspector at the Swedish Board of Agriculture.

"It is the first time we have been exposed to such a high risk. We must react quickly and consistently to save lives," he said.

The focus of Sweden's increased vigilance is Ottenby in the south of Öland, off the west coast. There are fears that infected birds may have already landed there, but despite an increase in testing, no trace of the virus has yet been found.

"We do around two thousand tests a year on birds to check what influenza viruses are being transmitted. So far no birds have been found to have the dangerous variant," said Johan Stedt, manager at the Ottenby bird station.

A special task force, including ornithologists, infectious disease experts, epidemiologists and zoologists, is working round the clock to identify particular risk areas in Sweden and to propose safety measures.

"Infected birds have probably already come here," said Jan Danielsson.

"In principle they can show up anywhere - they could land in the nearest town park."

But Minister of Public Health, Morgan Johansson, was more cautious as he returned from a "crisis meeting" with EU health ministers. He said that they were concerned that the scale of the issue should be kept in perspective.

"When you read certain papers you could almost believe that the pandemic is already here," he said.

"That doesn't mean that it isn't a big problem, but at the moment the problem is about whether we could get infected flocks of hens and chickens, for example."

Nevertheless, preparations are underway for the eventual mutation of the virus, which would allow it to be transmitted from human to human.

Sweden has already instigated a pandemic plan, bought in antiviral drugs to reduce the symptoms and the risk of infection. The possibility of increasing the capacity for vaccine production is also being explored.

"But I can say that we need to make purchases so that we have a big safety margin. I believe we need to buy in at least one million doses so that we double our stock and reach a level of 25% population coverage," said Johansson.

However, on Friday morning the government's measures were criticised as being inadequate. Christian Democrat member of parliament Chatrine Pålsson said that there were serious flaws in the Health Board's preparations.

"According to [the plan] we will only have antiviral medicine for 6-10 percent of the population. But the majority of countries have enough for 30 percent," said Pålsson.

"We demand that everyone should have access to medicine, in accordance with our health and medicine laws.

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