On Europe's Bird Flu Frontline

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When people living in the remote Danube Delta villages of Ceamurlia de Jos and Maliuc heard last week that their chickens and ducks would have to be destroyed to help prevent the spread of the Avian flu virus, they reacted in different ways. Some wept and prayed as they handed over their birds; others tried to hide them. Said Ceamurlia resident Gina Braileanu, "My uncle was caught hiding a hen close to his chest. He had to give it up."

Others immediately slaughtered their flocks, stuffing them into freezers for later consumption. But in the end there was no hiding place, and a total of 18,000 birds from the two villages were destroyed and cremated.

Days after the flu virus first appeared on the shores of Europe, local farmers in the former communist country of Romania were struggling to cope. The Danube Delta is one of the most pristine wildernesses in Europe, teeming with wildlife, rare species and hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that pass annually through the region on the way to their wintering grounds in north Africa. This year, those birds are carrying with them a dangerous infection that doctors fear could, if it makes the leap to humans, unleash the deadliest flu pandemic since 1918.

At the end of last week a single dead swan was spotted floating close to the riverbank near Maliuc, on the middle branch of the Danube. An old woman gently held the swan's head and showed it to onlookers. The peasants here are greatly affected by the death of these birds, which they believe are a symbol of purity and grace. Since then some 140 dead swans have been found, and the village itself is under strict quarantine. Residents are not allowed to go far. They stand watching the boats go by, but the only craft allowed to dock in Maliuc are military vessels bringing food to the village. The old lady who found the swan, who only days earlier was proud to show visitors her small but well-cared-for flocks, has been compensated, but her birds have been burned and buried in the ground. She has been told that she may, later, be given other birds.

The farmers in the affected villages go about their preparation for the winter, cutting logs and harvesting corn from the fields. But there is a difference. The farmyards are empty, now, and the ritual morning and evening feeding has stopped. This is a scenario that no hardworking rural Romanian could ever imagine.

Another 15 swans died Monday in the hamlet of Popina in the northeast of the Delta, close to the border with Ukraine. This makes three outbreaks of bird flu to be confirmed in Romania. Further south, the eastern Greek island of Inousses is under watch while tests are conducted on an infected turkey. Results won't be in for days and authorities have yet to order a mass slaughter of fowl there, but state vets are also looking into scores of other bird flu scares reported in mainland Greece within in the last 24 hours.

Losing their birds is a tough blow to the residents of the idyllic Danube Delta. But they will be hoping that the sacrifice of their flocks will avert a far deeper tragedy.