EU veterinary experts will today consider the option of vaccinating poultry flocks in Europe as protection against the H5N1 strain of avian flu.

The matter was also discussed by EU farm ministers at their meeting in Brussels on Monday (20 February) though the council was split on the issue.

The Dutch and the French argued strongly in favour of preventative vaccination, seeing it as a way of restricting the disease, especially where it was impractical to house free-range poultry.

But others, including the Germans and Austrians, expressed concern at the cost and effectiveness.

In particular, it is possible that vaccinated birds could still carry H5N1 while not displaying any symptoms, making the situation worse, not better.

“It is clear that there are a lot of pros and a lot of cons in this debate,” said farm council president Josef Proll. “But we wouldn’t want to run the risk of camouflaging the problem through a pre-emptive and premature vaccination approach.”

There were also trade considerations associated with vaccination.

Most of the discussion in Brussels yesterday focussed on what help might be available to farmers

EU farm commissioner Mariann Fisher Boel insisted that money was already at hand if farmers had to slaughter their poultry in the event of the disease reaching commercial flocks.

But, despite a 70% drop in chicken sales in Italy and a large drop in France, market conditions did not justify exceptional EU support.

In this context, it was not fair to compare avian flu with BSE, she said, because the production cycles with poultry were much shorter and it was easier to adapt to changed market requirements.

But she insisted that, if the situation got worse, aid was still a possibility, though this would require European Parliament approval and that would take time.

Meanwhile, food safety commissioner Markos Kyprianou reiterated that there was no need for consumer panic. “There is no need for EU consumers not to consume poultry meat,” he said.

All imports of meat from countries with H5N1 were banned, and the Commission was also drawing up a “self declaration scheme” for travellers coming back to the EU from those regions.

This week’s discussions follow confirmation of H5N1 in a wild duck in France over the weekend. The number of swans hit by the disease on the Baltic island of Rugen has also climbed.

But DEFRA continues to maintain that the risk of the disease reaching the UK is “low” and has not changed its bio-security advice to farmers or ordered free-range birds in doors.