Over 740 wild birds across 13 member states have tested positive for the H5N1 strain of avian flu since early February, according to official figures just published by the EU Commission.

However, a decline in the incidence of the disease has also been noted over the past weeks, suggesting the worst is over – for now.

During the February-May period some 60,000 wild birds were tested in the EU, in addition to the 39,000 tested between July 2005 and January 2006.

“Extensive surveillance has been one of the key tools used by the EU to fend off the virus over the past months,” EU food safety commissioner Markos Kyprianou told an international conference on avian flu in Rome on Wednesday (30 May).

“It is a fundamental component in minimising the introduction and spread of this disease which poses a serious threat to animal and public health.

“But we cannot let down our guard when it comes to avian influenza, as it is likely to remain a threat for Europe and the rest of the world for many months to come,” he added.

The commissioner noted that there had been only four outbreaks of H5N1 in commercial poultry flocks in the EU, and all of these were swiftly eradicated. No human case of the H5N1 virus has occurred in the EU.

The data reveals considerable regional variation in the number of cases in wild birds, ranging from 326 in Germany to 1 in the UK.

Infection rates peaked in March with 362 cases. Since then, the number of cases has declined to 162 in April and 17 in May.

The most commonly affected wild birds have been swans, representing 63% of the total, followed by ducks (16%), geese (4%), birds of prey (4%) and others (13%).

Almost €2.9m (£2m) has been made available by the commission to co-finance member states’ surveillance programmes for the period July 2005-December 2006.

The commission is also preparing to co-finance national aid packages to compensate poultry farmers for income losses arising from the crisis. So far 13 member states have applied for this assistance. The UK is not among them.

Flu watch logoAvian flu Special Report …