Bulgaria is scrambling to contain its latest outbreak of avian influenza, one that potentially poses a threat to both the country's export trade in poultry products and, even more importantly, its short-term EU accession hopes.
The outbreak, in the village Slunchogled in the southern Kurdzhali region of the country, close to the border with both Greece and Turkey, was first identified on June 20. Significantly, the infection was found in domestic fowl, not in wild birds, as had been the case in other outbreaks in Bulgaria earlier this year.
While preliminary testing suggested that the contaminated birds could have been carrying the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus, which has the capacity to infect humans, later results showed that the strain was not present in any of the samples taken. Further testing to confirm the results is being carried out in the UK.
Bulgarian health and agriculture officials acted quickly. An immediate quarantine zone of 3 km was declared around the contaminated village, more than 1500 fowl and pigeons in the zone were slaughtered, and a ban was imposed both on the sale of live birds throughout the country and on the transportation of animals from the affected region.
Tests were also promptly carried out to try and identify the source of the virus. Initial studies suggested two possibilities. One was a local dam used by migrating wild fowl and the other was that contaminated birds may have been brought in from neighbouring Turkey. The latter was discounted by Nihat Kabil, the agriculture minister, keen to promote the country's newly boosted border controls, a requirement of membership set by the EU.
News of the outbreak could not have come at a worse time for Bulgaria's producers or politicians. It was only in early May that the EU eased its ban on the export of Bulgarian poultry products, imposed in February after a number of wild swans were found to have died of the H5N1 strain of the virus.
Bulgarian officials have had to fight a battle on two fronts, one to limit the outbreak to a contained area and prevent any spread of the virus, and the other to be seen to be dealing with the problem in an efficient and effective manner.
In its May report on Bulgaria's progress in meeting the bloc's accession criteria, the European Commission identified a number of areas where the candidate country had fallen behind. Among these were implementing reforms in the agriculture sector and veterinary control.
On July 13, just a week before the latest outbreak of avian flu, Markos Kyprianou, the EU commissioner for health and consumer protection, reiterated the message. During his visit to Sofia, Kyprianou said that there had been major improvements in the field of veterinary medicine and control, though more needed to be done. He particularly singled out measures taken since October 2005 to prevent the spread of diseases such as mad cow disease, avian flu and swine fever.
However, few expected the new measures referred to by Kyprianou to be put to the test so early. With the EU scheduled to start conducting studies of Bulgaria's veterinary capabilities against the bloc's rigid standards in September, Bulgarian officials are hoping the outbreak in Slunchogled is an isolated incident.
Bulgaria had already moved to bolster its defences against avian flu following the EU's May report. On July 3, Zheko Baichev, the head of the country's National Veterinary Medical Service, announced that construction of a laboratory facility dedicated to testing for bird flu in the city of Aksakovo had begun, with the lab set to be up and running by the end of the year.
Taking into account EU concerns over border controls for livestock and animal products, Dimitar Peichev, the deputy agriculture minister, also announced on July 3 that an inspection lab in the port of Varna would be in operation on September 1.
Only days after the outbreak, Bulgaria's agriculture minister was upbeat, both over the success of efforts to contain the spread of the virus and on progress in meeting the EU's membership criteria.
"Agriculture will not be a reason for the EU to impose a safeguard clause or the reason of Bulgaria's membership of the bloc being put off," Kabil said in an interview with television station bTV on July 24.
"The execution of the criteria on agriculture chapter is going according to plan," he said. "The last deadline for us to report on the execution of our engagements is September 7. We are working very hard."
With the EU set to make a decision by October on whether to go ahead with Bulgaria's accession at the beginning of next year, Bulgarians will be hoping the minister's optimism is well founded.