Bird Flu Alarm

Understanding Avian Influenza

Bird flu advice

A 2,500-square km safety zone has been set up around a Scottish village following the first case of bird flu in Britain. Poultry keepers have been advised to take precautions and the general public told not to touch dead birds they find in the wild. Here is a summary of current guidelines.

James Sturcke and David Batty
Friday April 7, 2006
Guardian Unlimited

The Scottish outbreak

Following confirmation on April 6 2006 that a dead swan found in the Scottish coastal village of Cellardyke in Fife was infected with the H5N1 avian influenza, the Scottish Executive announced plans to prevent the spread of the virus.

The swan was found more than a week ago in the coastal Fife village of Cellardyke, about nine miles from St Andrews. The country's chief veterinary officer, Charles Milne, said a 2,500-square km "wild bird risk area" would be set up to the east of the M90 motorway.

The area contains 3.1 million birds, of which 260,000 are free-range. This includes 175 poultry premises registered with at least 50 birds. Gatherings of birds in that area are to be banned, and there will be extra surveillance of wild birds. Cars going in and out of Cellardyke will be stopped by police and motorists will be asked if they are carrying poultry. The chief vet said he was proposing to issue a "veterinary directive" to owners of commercial and domestic poultry to keep them indoors where possible. If this was not possible, owners would be expected to take steps to prevent their fowl from coming into contact with wild birds.
What about the rest of the UK?

According to the Scottish Executive, a preliminary risk assessment of the dead swan concluded that ordering all poultry to be housed indoors would be a disproportionate response.

The executive says dead swan is an isolated case, and there is no indication H5N1 has infected commercial poultry or domestic animals. Defra has yet to issue new guidelines, but it has previously said that once H5N1 is detected in Britain, poultry farmers will be ordered "wherever practicable" to bring their birds indoors.

In November, the chief veterinary officer, Debby Reynolds, advised bird keepers to make plans to bring their flocks inside at short notice.

Defra has published a number of guides on protecting birds and their keepers from infection, and preventing the spread of avian flu. Cutting contact with wild birds, rigorous biosecurity measures, surveillance and quarantine are key issues covered in the guides.

Advice includes feeding and watering birds under cover - to reduce the risk of mixing with wild birds - and information on cleanliness, vigilance and segregation.

Defra has these tips for anyone handling wild birds:

쨌 Wear protective gloves, preferably vinyl or heavy duty rubber ones that can be disinfected;
쨌 Take care to avoid contamination of the face and other exposed areas. If contamination does happen, wash the area thoroughly with soap and water;
쨌 Cover all new and existing cuts and grazes with waterproof dressings and gloves before starting work;
쨌 Wash hands, nails and forearms following any bird handling and before eating, drinking, smoking, using the telephone, applying make-up or inserting contact lenses.

On December 9 2005, Defra opened a poultry register. Owners of commercial farms with more than 50 birds must have, by law, registered by February 28 2006. Defra says the register will "gather essential information about certain species of birds. This information will help reduce the impact of an outbreak of avian influenza".

In the event of a suspected bird flu case, farmers and the general public should contact their nearest animal health office or phone 08457 335577.

Symptoms of avian flu in poultry are typically oedema (fluid accumulation) of the head, cyanosis (bluish-purple discolouring) of the comb and wattles, dullness, lack of appetite, respiratory distress, diarrhoea and drop in egg production. Birds may often die without any signs of disease being apparent. However, there can be considerable variations in the clinical picture and severity of the disease.

Small-scale poultry keepers

Defra says people who keep a small number of farm birds as pets or for personal consumption should take note of the advice to commercial farmers. They should also consider housing birds in alternative accommodation, such as a garden building or garage.

The poultry register is only mandatory for commercial farmers. "Back yard" poultry keepers are, however, "encouraged" to register their birds.

General public

Anyone who spots an unusual number of dead wild birds should contact the Defra helpline on 08459 33 55 77 before taking any action. Officials have warned that members of the public should not handle bird carcasses unless it is essential to do so.

Defra has previously said that once bird flu arrived in Britain "there would be no need for people to automatically reduce their visits to the countryside" and the majority of visitor attractions in rural areas would be unaffected.

Bird fairs, pigeon racing and falconry events

An EU ban imposed on these activities in October 2005 was lifted in December 2005 on the condition that organisers obtain a general licence from Defra. Records of organisers and participants must be kept and biosecurity advice made available at events.


In October the EU banned pet birds from entering the 25-country bloc, and the month-long ban has since been extended. There are certain exceptions for up to five birds entering with their owners. The birds must spend 30 days in quarantine or be vaccinated against avian flu.

Is it safe to eat poultry and eggs?

The Food Standards Agency says poultry meat and eggs should be cooked properly but "this is to avoid getting food poisoning from campylobacter or salmonella rather than as a measure against avian flu". It is reviewing its policy on eating eggs with runny yolks. The Australian Department of Health and Ageing recommends washing eggshells before cracking them.

Understanding Avian Influenza